Katie Hummel loves Parkland, Florida, “It is beautiful here, just beautiful,” Katie proudly tells me, “It’s really a wonderful place to live. It’s gorgeous.” An affluent community filled with parks, shopping centers, and beautiful homes, Parkland was recently named the safest city in Florida.
It’s also a place filled with good people, “The people are so warm and loving.” Katie knows about good people, she’s from Western New York.
The Hamburg native teaches at Park Trails Elementary, where they went into lock-down on Wednesday as the horror played out at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – just a quarter mile away.
Katie prayed for those teachers, students and families. She, like most others in Parkland and around the nation, is still reeling from the news – but sadly – she has a front row seat to witness the grief and sadness.
Katie taught two of the students killed in the tragedy, “It’s been such a trying week – emotional roller coaster of being completely shocked, devastated, heart-broken, and angry all together,” Katie said as she reflected on the loss of life, “Two kids that I had the absolute honor of teaching were the most wonderful and genuine kids.”
Katie spent Friday digging through photos – looking for those two sweet students when they were in her fifth grade class, “I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to be a part of their life.”
Katie remembers Martin Duque as a soft spoken boy who loved to read, “He was so sweet. So sweet. He loved to give hugs and I swear I got a hug from him every single day – all of the 180 days he was in my class. My heart hurts for his family.”
She says Gina Montaldo was a kind girl and great student, “She had a heart of absolute gold. Just so nice and respectful, a real pleasure to teach. Her entire family was very, very nice. I can’t believe it. I got a text first saying she was missing and I prayed and prayed. Then the next text saying she was gone and I couldn’t believe it. Still can’t believe it.”
The loss the community of Parkland is facing seems almost insurmountable, but they have no choice but to move on – through the sadness, the pain and the anger. The community held a vigil Thursday to honor and remember those lost, “You wouldn’t believe how much hugging and holding there was. There was such a sense of unity. It was so sad, but so beautiful,” Katie recalled, “The people here are hurting so much. Things are different and always will be and to be there, together, with so many others was very special.”
Katie is still in shock, and she’s still hearing new and disturbing details – but, she refuses to focus on that – instead keeping her thoughts on the positives – those incredibly strong students, a community coming together – and all of those heroes, “When you take a teacher role, that is what you do, it’s what you sign up to do and you don’t think twice. I’m so proud of the heroism. So proud. I am not at all shocked to hear about Aaron Feis, what he did for those students – that is the kind of person he was.”
Stoneman Douglas High School will be open on Monday. The 9th grade building where the shootings took place is closed and set to be demolished.
It will be a long road for the people of Parkland. Right now, they are grieving, but they are also looking toward the future. They want this tragedy – their tragedy – to bring change – finally. Katie is confident they’ll get it done, “These are smart kids that come from good families with endless resources. They’re going to do big things.”
Students have been speaking out, rallying, asking – begging – elected leaders to help them make something good come from the horror they lived on Valentine’s Day. A group of kids will be walking in Tallahassee next week, too. They are demanding change – from gun control to mental health issues.
Katie told me by phone, her voice cracking, that for now it’s about healing and honoring those lost, “If it can happen here, it can obviously happen anywhere. We are devastated. Our hearts are broken. We never expected this. Never. But, this could really be the change that is needed. These kids could be the change. They will not forget and move one. This community will not forget and move on.”
Parkland, Florida is still a beautiful place filled with warm and caring people – now – it has a spotlight shining over it – with all of us watching and waiting to see what those students teach our lawmakers and the rest of us.