There are still ribbons tied to trees lining the roads towards Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school; familiar #MSDStrong messages endure on the wire fences of neighbouring campuses, the letters spelled out conscientiously by students using plastic cups.
If there remain plentiful visual indications that the nation’s deadliest high school shooting took place in this south Florida community exactly one year ago, the commemoration of Thursday’s first anniversary will confirm that the 17 victims and survivors are anything but forgotten.
What city leaders intend to be a “low-key” occasion of remembrance will be marked by vigils, moments of silence, an interfaith service and encouragement for the public to observe the day – Valentine’s Day – in “service and love”.
Stoneman Douglas students and their families will gather in the city’s largest park to remember their friends following a half-day at school; museums and a local nature centre will open their doors for free; a favourite beach of one of the victims, 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, will be cleaned up by loved ones and former classmates in her memory.
The events are, in the words of the Parkland mayor, Christine Hunschofsky, an opportunity for a grieving but unbroken community to come together in a purposeful celebration of the lives lost and to support those still suffering.
“I had discussions with several of the families, and from what we also learned from places that had experienced these tragedies previously, every day is a tough day but the one-year mark is also a tough day,” she said.
“We wanted to keep it what it’s supposed to be about and remember why we’re here. We’re here because 17 people’s lives were taken, we’re here because 17 other people were injured and a school’s students, teachers and staff were traumatised.
“It’s a respectful way of acknowledging that and who better than the clergy to show us a hopeful path forward? It’s there for everybody, there for everybody to feel sad, there for everybody to feel hope, but to reverently and respectfully acknowledge the loss and what this community has been through.”
A short walk from the Stoneman Douglas campus, Pine Trails park became the site of the memorials for the victims a year ago with thousands from Parkland, Coral Springs and other neighbouring cities attending an emotional candlelit vigil the night following the shooting. On Thursday it will again open its gates to serve a familiar role: a day-long commemoration will take place there, with therapy dogs and counsellors on hand, and events will conclude with the short interfaith service in the evening.
Those who attend are invited to bring a food item for an anti-hunger charity in lieu of cards, flowers or mementoes for the 14 Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and three teachers who were murdered, something Hunschofsky believes reflects the selfless and resilient spirit of her city.
“While we are still healing, while a lot of this is still raw, to see the human spirit that we have here in Parkland, I think that’s the message. We might have been shaken but we refuse to be down for the count,” she said.
“Our residents are collecting for the homeless, doing service projects all year round, helping each other all year round. We didn’t become cynical with helping one another, didn’t say, ‘I’m not going to try and make a difference and be the change I want to see.’ Our community didn’t let this stop them from being the great community it was prior to this.”
Hunschofsky says she is also keen that Thursday’s remembrance focuses on “the human side” of the tragedy and not the firestorm of political controversy that still surrounds its aftermath, including the removal of the Broward county sheriff, Scott Israel, by Florida’s new governo,r Ron DeSantis, and efforts to unseat Robert Runcie, Broward’s superintendent of schools, blamed by some Parkland parents for alleged missteps before and after the shooting.
“When you have mass tragedies it’s easy to kind of make everything about issues,” she said. “I’m not saying there aren’t issues that led to this happening but the humans get overlooked a lot of the time. For me, if we as a community recognise the human side, we will do better going forward because we’ll always remember why we’re here and what we’re working toward.”
Manuel Oliver, whose 17-year-old son Joaquin was among those killed, will spend the anniversary in New York campaigning for gun control legislation.
“Forget about 14 February, it’s not any more in our calendar. That significance of friendship and love is gone,” he said.
“For me it’s another day. I am going to be able to close the loop of special dates, I needed to wait until 14 February to at least understand a little bit how am I going to feel, on my wife’s birthday without Joaquin, on my birthday, on Joaquin’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve …
“So it makes you a little stronger for the next time. Other than that, forever, people will call me and try to find out how I’m feeling every 14 February until the day I die.”
Hunschofsky agrees that the anniversary is just one moment of an ongoing journey of healing and recovery for the victims’ families, the city of 32,000 residents and the wider community in south Florida.
“I don’t think there’s ever closure because this was a traumatic event. This is a lifelong process that people will be going through,” she said.
“There will be many bumps along the way. Even in healing, there will be many bumps. People who feel they’re kind of doing a little better as a the one-year mark approaches, a lot of the feelings that were there right after 14 February are coming back.
“So it’s better for people to look at this, as in any life experience, as something you keep working on and focusing on moving forward and doing the best you can. As a community it’s important to realise and acknowledge the trauma and that it still exists and that we need to keep working on it.”
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