Helping People

‘People want to help’: How Parkland families are creating nonprofits for social change

When you lose someone, how do you make sure their memory lives on?

For the loved ones of the 17 victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, a constellation of scholarships, memorial funds and activist organizations now exist in honor of the students and teachers slain on Feb. 14.

In the next couple months, workers will break ground on “Princess Meadow’s Playground” — a subset of Betti Stradling Park in Coral Springs built to honor Parkland victim Meadow Pollack, who used to play there as a child.

Her father, Andrew Pollack, said he wanted to build a cheerful, beautiful place to remember his daughter, his princess. He also plans to include a memorial for all the lives lost that day.

“A place for the community to go to remember all the victims,” he said.

Pollack said his organization raised more than $500,000 in the “Meadow’s Movement” effort, enough to also fund a new playground at the Chabad of Coral Springs.

Most families have chosen to direct donations — which have poured in from around the world — to charities and causes their loved ones were passionate about during their lives.

When it came time to close out Carmen Schentrup’s bank account, her parents took her $5,000 in savings to jumpstart Carmen’s Dream Fund, a research fund with the ALS Foundation. ALS, also known as Lou Gherig’s disease, is a degenerative illness Carmen wanted to dedicate her life to curing. So far, April Schentrup said, the fund has raised more than $159,000.

“We want to have a way to honor her dream. And people want to help. People always ask what they can do to help,” she said.

Carmen’s music teacher also helped spearhead a music scholarship for high-achieving soloists in her honor — the Carmen Schentrup Memorial Award.

Chris Hixon, the athletic director at the school killed in the shooting, now has an athletic scholarship in his name. His wife, Debra Hixon, said the Chris Hixon Athletic Scholarship supports student athletes with good grades and volunteer hours at each of the three schools where Hixon served as an athletic director. They plan to fund-raise with charity 5ks, including one Feb. 16 on Hollywood Beach.

“We want the memorial to be something positive, for his life and what he stood for,” she said. “I don’t want people to define him by how he died, because that was just a moment in his life.”

The Montalto family decided “to keep Gina’s light shining” with the Gina Rose Montalto Memorial Foundation, which will begin awarding merit-based scholarships in early 2019 to students who plan to pursue higher education in art, STEM and mental health. They’d also like to offer grants to high-achieving Girl Scouts one day soon.

“We’re hopeful it’ll be perpetual. It’s our goal to pass this on to our son so he could” — Tony Montalto’s voice quavered — “remember his sister.”

This work — no matter how impactful — can only go so far in alleviating grief. Fred Guttenberg, who lost his 14-year-old daughter Jaime, said it makes him feel “inspired and depressed.”

“Inspired by the energy we see from people when they hear what we’re doing and the change we’re making, but just so depressed that we’re doing this for the memory of my daughter because she’s gone,” he said.

He, like a few other parents, has thrown himself into activism in addition to philanthropy.

His foundation is Orange Ribbons for Jaime (her favorite color and the color of the national gun safety movement). It donates to charities that were important to Jaime, including the Broward County Humane Society, where she volunteered; the dance company Jacob’s Pillow and the Paley Institute, where she one day dreamed of being a physical therapist.

Through the nonprofit, Guttenberg also advocates for policies and politicians supporting gun control and safe schools.

He’s part of a cohort of families who have decided the best way to honor their dead loved ones is making sure this type of tragedy can never happen again.

In addition to a soccer scholarship, Lori Alhadeff, who lost her daughter Alyssa, started Make Our Schools Safe (MOSS) to encourage school safety initiatives. She visits schools and starts “dream team clubs” where students become activists for safety at their own schools.

The organization pays for “Stop the Bleed” trainings, which trains students and teachers how to keep injured peers from dying until help arrives, and suicide-prevention trainings.

On the MOSS website, there’s a large ad on the bottom of the page that offers a discount on a bullet-resistant backpack with 15 percent of profits donated to the charity.

“I like to talk about layers of safety,” said Alhadeff, who was elected to the Broward School Board in August. “But if all else fails, the student has a bulletproof backpack that could help save their life.”

Max Schachter has thrown himself into a school safety campaign that has gone international. After losing his son, Alex, when the killer shot through the window of a classroom, Schachter decided the nation needed a national clearinghouse for best practices in school safety, as well as a central authority to enforce them.

His mission — Safe Schools For Alex — has taken him to the White House, to “the safest school in America” and even to Israel.

He now has the bipartisan support of 34 congressmen and senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and a letter outlining his goals on the desk of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

“Most days I don’t want to leave my bed. I miss Alex so much. But I know that Alex would want me to help other children,” Schachter said. “I know he’s with me on this journey. I’m going to keep pushing until all the children in schools are safe across the U.S.”

That same drive pushes Manuel Oliver, who lost his son and best friend Joaquin. He expresses his pain and desire for change through art, including a statue of a child cowering under a school desk, which he’s featured at South Florida events rallying for gun safety laws.

Through his Walls of Demand project — part of his broader gun advocacy group Change the Ref — Oliver has painted more than a dozen murals across the country calling for change. Most notably, he painted a wall directly across from the National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, on Joaquin’s birthday, where Oliver said 1,500 people gathered and sang “Happy Birthday” to his son.

Joaquin is also immortalized in a project from Area 23 in New York that uses software to handwrite social media posts to letters to legislators. Thanks to Oliver’s involvement, all those letters are written in Joaquin’s handwriting.

“Any other handwriting wouldn’t have the same effect,” he said.

Oliver and several other parents have hit the campaign trail to advocate for their favorite politicians before the Nov. 6 election, some through their nonprofits.

Pollack’s other organization in his daughter’s memory, Children’s Lives and School Safety, has an eight-point plan to up school security, including better mental health resources, district school safety specialists and a school safety hotline.

Some of the funds his group raised helped hire more armed school guards in Polk County as part of the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, one of the facets of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Law passed in Florida less than a month after the shooting. Feis was killed in the Stoneman Douglas shooting.

The bill also enacted a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases, raised the legal age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 and gives police greater authority to confiscate guns from people who threaten themselves or others.

This major legislative achievement led the families to band together and form Stand With Parkland, a group that has helped lobby for more gun-related laws, including the FIX NICS act, which penalizes government agencies for not reporting to the federal background check system, and STOP School Violence, which would establish a grant program for school security.

Tony Montalto, who lost his daughter Gina, is president of the group. He called their wins incremental steps on the road to real change.

“We’ve been unfortunately given a voice, and we want to use it to bring people together to start conversations in the ideological middle, to people who can have a respectful conversations with each other,” he said. “And then take that position and take it to our leaders and lawmakers and pass policies and laws that keep our teachers and students safe at school.”

The nonprofit advocates for enhanced school security, responsible firearms ownership and better mental health screening and support programs. The strategy, Montalto said, is to convince legislators that “compromise isn’t a dirty word.”

“I’d rather the kids be 10 percent safer now than 90 percent safer never because we couldn’t reach an agreement,” he said.