What does a survivor from Virginia Tech and Columbine have in common?

I’ve been telling a lot more people about Koshka Foundation lately – more importantly, that I started it after surviving the Virginia Tech shooting.

Someone recently asked me, “Is that what you want to be associated with?” Well, frankly, no, I don’t want to be forever hash tagged with “massacre, tragedy, school violence”.
But there’s a flipside to this conversation: prevention, education, improvement of school safety and becoming a strong and awesome resource for other survivors (even if it is of school shootings?) Ummm…YES.

Sure, if someone had told 19 year-old me that I would be planning a cocktail fundraiser with another school shooting survivor – well, I probably wouldn’t have RSVP’ed to that party.

But life takes odd turns. I first heard about Sam Granillo through his Kickstarter project (anything with “Columbine survivor” stands out). I wanted to know everything I could about another survivor that was speaking out, mostly because there are so few in the first place, and even fewer that go on to make a film about their experience. (For a great documentary on Tech, check out Colin Goddard’s “Living for 32”).

After a few e-mail exchanges, Sam and I had our first phone call. Yes, the first minutes of “getting to know each other” were unavoidably awkward. But as the stories started spilling, the awkwardness quickly faded and a new friendship emerged. I remember thinking that I was laughing too much for a call about school shootings…

I learned that he was trapped in the cafeteria during the shooting, and that he’s producing a documentary that follows the current lives of Columbine kids like him, 13 years later. (Since time has distanced the events from us, we could talk about an array of topics. Did you know balloons still aren’t allowed inside Columbine High?)

More importantly, we instantly synced on his focus: that survivors are one of the most overlooked groups in traumatic situations. This is partially because the time when they need the most emotional and financial support comes much later after the event itself. Once the cameras and medics leave, and the dust settles on the form of a drastically changed landscape that only the survivors really see, is when the real processing can begin.

Sam and I met in person for the first time this summer at Columbine High School. I can’t lie, I was nervous meeting him at the actual site of the shootings – would it be painful for him to go back? Thankfully, it turned out to be like meeting an old friend. He launched into giving me a tour of the building. We ran into his principal, we searched for his locker, he took me to the classroom where he worked on the morning TV program that airs each morning at the start of each school day. Sam explained how one of the victims was in that class with him.

He got our first meeting on video.

I cringed internally when Sam stopped to talk at the landing above the cafeteria. Just an hour before, I had watched a surveillance video from the Columbine shooting, and he was standing in the same spot one of the shooters used during the attack. I didn’t mention it, and we moved on…

We sat at one of the round tables in the cafeteria, below the calming cedar painted tiles that now adorn the commemorative ceiling. As we tried to find a good time to film the fundraiser the following morning, we learned that neither of us like early call times. Sam suggested we try and film the trailer right there, on the steps of the cafeteria. Without a script and seeing each other for less than 30 minutes, we put together an event. (Watch our video)

On Tuesday, July 24th, Sam and I are speaking together for the first time to answer “What does a survivor from Virginia and Columbine have in common”? We’re going to share personal stories from our own experiences and hopefully add some fresh perspective to your week.

The event (on a nifty Seattle rooftop) is centered around a great cause – learning more about our work and raising donations for Sam’s documentary, “Columbine: Wounded Minds”.

If you are in Seattle, please join us and RSVP here.

If you are outside of Seattle, please read about and share the “Columbine: Wounded Minds” documentary with your friends.

Positive things can come out of the events like Virginia Tech and Columbine. I want to show that ALL of us have more in common than random acts of violence, and through our stories, we can all help unveil the more constructive side of tragedy.