Parkland survivors visit Tree of Life to help community find voice
The message from Parkland to Pittsburgh on Friday was simple: You matter — and you have a voice.
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. visited Pittsburgh to start three days of talking and sharing with students at Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill and others in the Jewish community. The high school sits about a mile away from the Tree of Life synagogue, where a gunman killed 11 people among three congregations during Shabbat services Oct. 27.
The southern Florida students survived the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at their high school, where 17 people were gunned down.
Lizzie Eaton, a Stoneman Douglas student, said it’s about relaying a message.
“We want to spread the message of hope and unity and overcoming tragedy because it’s so hard to do that alone,” she said. “That’s why we want to come together with our community and the Tree of Life community and share what we’ve experienced.”
Carlitos Rodriguez, another Stoneman Douglas student, asked the 100 or so students gathered in Allderdice’s library to place their hand over their heart.
“You guys feel that pulse? That’s purpose,” he said. “You guys are alive for a reason.”
Daniel Tabares, another student and survivor of the Florida shooting, also urged Pittsburgh students to remember that they matter. He had them say it silently to themselves first and then to the classmate next to them. Finally, he had them hold hands, raise them above their heads and say, “We matter.”
Nikolas Cruz, a former Stoneman Douglas student, confessed to the Florida shooting and is awaiting trial. Robert Bowers has pleaded not guilty to 63 federal charges in connection with the Tree of Life shooting.
Rabbi Ron Symons of the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh said he hoped the students can learn and help one another get through their respective tragedies. He said it all began months ago with a cold call from a Stoneman Douglas alumnus asking, “What can we do?”
Symons said he hopes students will hear the Parkland survivors’ message of speaking up.
“How do we find our voice? I mean, just look at these Parkland teens and what they’ve done to our country – it’s absolutely amazing. They have changed the face of the conversation,” he said. “They’re hoping to inspire the teens here at Allderdice to do the same right here in Pittsburgh.”
After speaking with Allderdice students, the Parkland students, teachers and community members met with survivors of the Tree of Life shooting outside the still-shuttered synagogue.
In a voice that often cracked but never wavered, Parkland teacher Ivy Schamis urged them not to let the tragedy destroy the good memories. She told those huddled in front of Tree of Life that she’d referred to her classroom for 10 years as her “happy place.”
“Even though a terrible shooting happened and terrible things happened here, so many wonderful things happened,” Schamis said. “I hope that you, just like me, hold onto the fantastic and amazing memories – and not forget, of course, what happened there but hold onto all the good things.”
In her classroom, Room 1214 in Building 12 on the Stoneman Douglas campus, she taught a class on the Holocaust. They had been learning about the rise of hate groups. When a former student gunned down 16 students and a teacher, two of those killed, Nicholas Dworet and Helena Ramsay, were in her classroom.
“I utter their names every day, multiple times a day, because I just still can’t wrap my head around the fact that they were killed in the very classroom where they were learning how to combat hate,” Schamis said.
On Friday afternoon, Parkland students, parents and community members met with Mayor Bill Peduto for nearly three hours in his conference room to share their experiences and thoughts on how to address gun violence. Peduto said it brought back poignant memories of the Tree of Life massacre. He said the goal of the meeting was to work together for change.
“It was three hours where every one of us would have hoped we would never have met, where every one of us would have traded anything and everything to not be in this situation, and three hours of learning that doing nothing doesn’t solve problems,” the mayor said.
Staff writer Bob Bauder contributed to this report.
Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter .