WILKES-BARRE TWP. —When Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis walked out of her home on Dec. 14, 2012, she saw a beautiful sunrise over the water.
It was a Friday and the weekend was just a work-day away. She was newly engaged to be married. Life was good.
“I took a picture of that beautiful sunrise, filled with a sense of peace and calm and happiness, even more eager to start my day,” she recalled on Thursday to graduates and guests attending Luzerne County Community College’s annual commencement at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Less than three hours later, her sense of peace, calm and happiness were forever changed.
As she and her first-grade students sat greeting one another as they did every day, “loud, rapid-fire shots began over and over and over,” she said.
She knew immediately it was a gun “shattering large glass panes, bringing terror, pain, sadness and immeasurable loss to a school full of light and life,” Roig-DeBellis said, her voice cracking and eyes tearing up as she recalled the deadly attack by a lone gunman that left 26 students and teachers dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The possibility that your life can change in an instant is, of course, always there, she said. But there are two things to take away from that lesson.
“One, you must live your life every day so that if you were to come face-to-face with your last moment, you would feel as well as possible about the choices and decisions you made. Second, you alone have the power … of how to react in unexpected situations,” Roig-DeBellis said.
“You can react with anger, resentment or hate, or you can make the conscious choice to react with hope, love and compassion,” she said.
After the shooting began, time was of the essence.
“The only decision that needed to be made was: Do I want us to survive?” Roig-DeBellis said. “And the only answer to that was yes.”
She turned off the classroom lights and told her 15 students to go into the restroom. They began to protest. The bathroom was about 4 feet long by 3 feet wide. It seemed impossible. But they did it. And they waited silently as the shooting continued.
“Will it be OK? Will you make it through? As I stood surrounded by my precious students, my mind went to what was at my core — the thought of my fiancee, the thought of my wedding dress that I had literally just bought, the thought of the beach that we were to be married on that August,” Roig-DeBellis said.
“In those moments, I realized, I cannot just give up. What do you do in a time when all of your control has been taken from you? Where you are left shaking, scared, quivering? What is there to do? We had to make a choice. We had to choose hope,” she said,
She told those who believed in the power of prayer that they needed to pray. “If you believe in something else, you need to imagine the very best and think very happy thought. Focus on the positive. And so that’s what we did.”
In a little while, an eerie silence came over the school. And they waited “for the good guys to come and rescue us,” Roig-DeBellis said. What felt like hours was 45 minutes.
After experiencing this tragedy, Roig-DeBellis, 30, of Greenwich, Connecticut, was left searching for answers.
“Metaphorically, I was banging my head against a wall for about two weeks, asking why. Why our school, why those lives? Why did it happen here? My healing began the day that I realized I was never going to answer those questions. My healing began the day that I had to focus on two questions that I knew I could answer. Those two questions were: How do I make sure this doesn’t define my students and I moving forward, and how do I make sure we regain our control?” she said.
That’s when the idea behind Classes 4 Classes, a non-profit foundation she founded, was born.
Toys, money, school supplies and other gifts were being sent to the school children from across the nation.
“We were receiving and receiving, and a day came when I said, you know what, this is the day that I’m teaching my students that when you get, you have to give. This is the day that we’ve gotten, now it’s our turn. So we sent money for a classroom in Tennessee to buy a $900 smart-board,” Roig-DeBellis said.
Her first graders were the first class to participate in Classes 4 Classes, which Roig-DeBellis described as a web-based tool for teachers to help them in teaching their own “social curriculum,” a concept that Roig-DeBellis has always embraced and found equally as important to teach as an academic curriculum. The website is www.classes4classes.org.
Roig-DeBellis has been on sabbatical since August, spending most of her time working with the foundation board to improve the website and spread its message. She’s been in 10 states working with more than 1,000 students in 45 classrooms.
“Our non-profit is all about teaching kids to genuinely care about each other by being actively engaged, not just talking about these things, not just saying ‘I am kind when I share,’ but actually learning these lessons by doing. They’re learning the importance that in life, we’re all connected, that in life, we have to empathize with the needs of others, we have to be compassionate to our fellow man and that it’s our job to do so,” she said.
Roig-DeBellis believes that attitude and belief is what has helped her and her students to begin to heal and get past the tragedy of Sandy Hook.
“The day we realized we were going to help that class, we got our control back, and that day didn’t define us anymore. It couldn’t because if we were choosing hope and love, hate couldn’t define us.”