GRESHAM, Ore. -- The first-grade teacher credited with saving the lives of her students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. during the shooting in December 2012 spoke with Centennial High School in Gresham Friday morning about her experience and lessons learned.
Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis said she remembers the day started off well but her life changed in an instant.
“Loud, rapid fire shots began over and over and over,” Roig-DeBellis told the auditorium of students.
She began to choke up as she spoke about what she heard next. “Terror, pain, sadness and immeasurable loss to a school full of life and love.”
Roig-DeBellis piled her 15 first-grade students into a 3x4 foot bathroom and waited for police to finally knock on the door.
“My students looked up at me with pleading eyes,” she said, describing what they said to her next. “’Miss Roig, I want to have Christmas; Miss Roig, I want to hug my mom; Miss Roig, I don't want to die today.’”
She told them it would be okay, and while she believed she might die, she chose to have faith. She’s now spreading the message that you can always choose how to react.
“I've been through this personal hell, but I can choose to have hope,” she told KATU News after the assembly.
Her message seemed well-received by students at Centennial High School.
“It does inspire me,” said senior Ashley Hatch. “No matter what we go through, how hard it might be for us, we can always change our perspective on it.”
Roig-DeBellis said her memories of the massacre are still with her and that she thinks about what happened “every second of every day.” But she’s healing.
She created a nonprofit, Classes 4 Classes, in the weeks after the tragedy. The organization came about after her class received an abundance of gifts from around the world. She saw it as an opportunity for her students to give back.
“I found a way to make sure that day did not define their lives moving forward, but that we could focus on the positive,” she said.
After her speech, the Centennial High School student council presented Roig-DeBellis with a check; the Gresham students had raised money for Classes 4 Classes, and it brought her to tears.
Learn more about Roig-DeBellis’ organization, Classes 4 Classes, here.