'I don't feel helpless anymore': Mystic mothers tackle gun violence

Four Mystic mothers gathered Tuesday to channel their anger at school gun violence into action, with the hope of growing their ranks as they seek to get Sandy Hook Promise programs into area schools.

After the Parkland shooting, Gayle Oko researched Sandy Hook Promise, a grass-roots nonprofit that seeks to protect kids from gun violence.

She felt its programs — which teach students to recognize the signs of harm to oneself or others, and to be more socially inclusive — aligned with what she was thinking and feeling.

She approached her friend Katrina Fitzgerald, who was surprised there wasn't a Sandy Hook Promise group in the area, about getting involved as "Promise Leaders."

"It feels so good to be part of a solution," Oko said. "It feels so empowering. I don't feel helpless anymore."

In the past three weeks, she and Fitzgerald have met with various school officials in Groton, attended last week's youth-led discussion on gun violence and school safety, and gone to a planning meeting for this week's community conversation on school climate and safety.

"We're kind of excited to add to our repertoire of positive experiences for our students, especially around the social-emotional learning," Assistant Superintendent Susan Austin told The Day.

The group had its first organizational meeting in New London on Tuesday, also attended by Melinda Cassiere and Cindy Brayman.

Fitzgerald is a Republican member of the Groton Board of Education — though she noted her Sandy Hook Promise activities are separate from her board activities — and a former kindergarten aide. Oko served for 20 years in the Navy. Cassiere was a police officer but now stays home with her kids, ages 3 and 4. Brayman is a hairdresser and retail sales associate.

Fitzgerald, Oko and Brayman know each other from sending their respective kids — now ages 19-27 — through Groton Public Schools at the same time, and they all attend Union Baptist Church in Mystic.

Cassiere found Oko when she sought to become involved with Sandy Hook Promise.

"I was a police officer when Sandy Hook happened. I know police officers who were there. They are traumatized" and have severe post-traumatic stress disorder, Cassiere said. She added, "I am here because I need to do something."

At the meeting, Oko and Fitzgerald explained the four Know the Signs programs of Sandy Hook Promise: Say Something, Start with Hello, Signs of Suicide Prevention Program, and Safety Assessment and Intervention.

Last year, Sandy Hook Promise and Students Against Violence Everywhere joined forces, and these programs are now embedded in SAVE Promise Clubs across the country.

The programs are funded through donations to Sandy Hook Promise, and Oko explained that the southeastern Connecticut group can get put on the list to have trainers come to interested schools.

Sandy Hook Promise identifies as "a moderate voice" that "believes change will happen when we focus on mental health & wellness and gun safety." It does not endorse or fund candidates for political office.

The four women gathered Tuesday night discussed ideas to raise awareness and spread the message of the group, such as starting a postcard campaign, talking to parent–teacher organizations, creating a Twitter account and newsletter, setting up tables at local fairs and festivals, and raising money through a 5K or benefit concert.

"Every single step, however large or however small, done with peaceful and positive intentions, is always going to be a success," Oko said.

Oko is speaking at the community conversation about school climate and safety at Fitch High School on Thursday evening, and she is participating in March for Our Lives at Stonington High School on Saturday — the first march in her life.

The next meeting of Sandy Hook Promise Southeastern CT is planned for 6:30 p.m. on April 4. Those interested in getting involved can email sandyhookpromisesoutheasternct@gmail.com.

e.moser@theday.com

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