Editor’s Note: Jennifer Hubbard is the executive director of the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary, a nonprofit group that honors the memory of her 6-year-old daughter, who was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The opinions expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN. Alisyn Camerota hosts a CNN Special Report “Sandy Hook: Forever Remembered” at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday.
I have found myself lately thinking about the simple instruction offered to my daughter when she was learning to ride horses. The instructor assured Catherine she would steer where she stared. Week after week she would gently urge Catherine to “look forward to where you want to go. Whisper [her horse] will take you there.”
As I face this horrendous anniversary, I am realizing the teacher’s assurances are the truth.
My daughter, Catherine, was one of the first graders lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2012. She was 6 years old when she died. Altogether, 20 children and six adults died in the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
Much of the weeks that followed are now a blur, but I distinctly remember a few things about driving through our iconic town center. One was seeing Catherine’s name spelled out on a board behind flickering candles.
The outpouring of support in our small, quintessential New England town and the people from other states, filling sidewalks and assembling makeshift memorials for our loved ones, was overwhelming. Their empathy was palpable.
It was somehow as if they came to make right the senseless violence that not only took our loved ones but also snatched our country’s innocence.
Another was the word, “Hope,” spelled out on the green space in front of a historic office building. It seemed like an instruction to all who came and who lived in our once sleepy town.
As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy, there has been a renewed focus on the 26 families who lost loved ones. There is a curiosity about our thoughts on the past decade and questions about what change is possible, given the continued prevalence of school shootings in our country.
Some families have chosen to navigate the past 10 years quietly and privately, while others have focused on advocacy and litigation. All families have chosen the path they feel will best reconcile their profound and sacred loss. I honor and respect the paths each family has chosen.
This anniversary is again centering the national conversation around advocacy and solutions aimed at addressing gun violence in our country. Since the Sandy Hook shooting, there have been more than 3,500 mass shootings, according to Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit group that defines a mass shooting as the killing or injury of at least four people, excluding the shooter.
Somewhere between Main Street, Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, we have been unable to implement strategies that address the violence. Debates end in filibusters and finger-pointing, leaving solutions stalled between party lines, and the conversations go cold. That is until the next school shooting, and the cycle begins anew.
I believe, though, all is not lost. For me, a focus on compassion will help end the systemic violence in our country.
Ten years ago, I would have said what you may be thinking, “Oh, if it were that simple.” But I urge us to have hope. Do not be deceived by the simplicity of what I propose: Compassion is a catalyst that can lead to determining and implementing complex solutions for the issues we are facing.
I know this because I have chosen to navigate the past decade by creating the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary in Catherine’s memory, focusing my attention on emulating the kindness and compassion she extended to the animals she adored.
Her plan was simple; she wanted any creature in her care to know they would be safe and protected. She believed if she could do this, the creature in her care would tell their friends, and not only would that animal return but also would do so with friends. Catherine would whisper to every creature she met, “Tell all your friends that I am kind.”
The sanctuary aims to promote healing through “the human-animal connection,” with 34 acres of woodlands and rolling meadows in the heart of Newtown. On the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, the sanctuary is breaking ground on its permanent facilities that will include a library, space for educational and event programming and a veterinary clinic. The self-sustaining facilities will pay homage to Catherine, with a central spire topped with red terra-cotta tiles to signify her red hair and two walkways connecting buildings to signify her outstretched arms, welcoming all to the sanctuary.
In focusing on compassion and kindness, the sanctuary has produced extraordinary results. Programs that explore an animal’s purpose and unique contributions to an ecosystem have been attended by more than 143,000 people, and initiatives implemented with the solitary purpose of assisting aging adults to keep their pets safely in their homes have been recognized by national organizations for the aging and have been adopted by municipalities across Connecticut.
And, what I believe to be most important, children once marginalized because their interests didn’t align with what was trending, are gaining confidence in finding their interests celebrated at the sanctuary. And that confidence translates into improved reading levels, in-school engagement and the discovery there are other children who share their love for animals and the environment.
If we are dismissive because a possible solution seems too simple, then the divisiveness in our discourse, especially after each school shooting, will continue to steer us where we stare — at divisiveness — not toward the creation of solutions.
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Emulating compassion is the first step that leads to our ability to debate and have the critical conversations needed to make change. It’s simple, perhaps, but a start in what I know can be change.
Compassion will only help us as we continue to navigate the challenges ahead as a nation. I’ve seen this in action at the sanctuary where conversations are rooted in compassion and understanding for animals, the world around us and each other. It makes me believe that something better is possible.
On this 10th anniversary of one of the worst tragedies in our nation’s history, I firmly stare toward compassion, because I believe it is the catalyst for change. And I believe your heart knows it, too.