Columbine community gathers for tearful, hopeful ceremony

“How are we doing 20 years later?” asked Dawn Anna, mother of Columbine High School shooting victim Lauren Townsend on the 20th anniversary of her 18-year-old daughter’s death. “We are surviving.”

Anna spoke to the hundreds gathered in Clement Park on Saturday afternoon to honor the 13 lives lost in the 2-decade-old school shooting that stunned the world. Her message preached to recommit to a life of service, kindness and love in the fallen’s honor.

The celebration to remember Cassie Bernall, Corey DePooter, Matthew Kechter, Daniel Rohrbough, Isaiah Shoels, Lauren Townsend, Steven Curnow, Kelly Fleming, Daniel Mauser, Rachel Scott, William “Dave” Sanders, John Tomlin and Kyle Velasquez drew current and past governors and a video message from former President Bill Clinton, but the real luminaries of the evening were from the Columbine High School community.

When Sean Graves walked to the stage, people in the crowd were so moved they took to their feet and couldn’t help but cheer for him with tears streaming down their cheeks.

Graves was shot six times during the 1999 tragedy and learned to walk again after his injuries paralyzed him from the waist down, he shared during his speech.

“I’ve acquired a decent amount of scars,” Graves said. “Not all of the scars are visible on the skin.”

Survivors and family members reminded the community that though the current students attending Columbine High School weren’t even born when the horrific shooting happened, those most closely impacted were still grieving and learning how to live with their “new normal” every day.

“Can it truly be 20 years since I’ve seen my Lauren?” Anna asked. “She could walk through my back door this afternoon, and I’d just look at her and say, ‘Where ya been?’”

Anna said there is no secret to making it through difficult days — the birthdays and anniversaries that are celebrated with a twinge of sadness because someone is missing.

“Surviving takes every breath that you struggle to take,” Anna said. “And then one day you realize it’s not so dark, and the sun is shining, and you can feel the sun on your face again.”

When Anna is having a particularly rough day, she thinks of her daughter saying: “Mom, do something wonderful for me.”

“If we can’t take this horrible pain and turn it into something loving, then how can we honor them?” Anna asked.

Anna rejoiced as Gov. Jared Polis proclaimed April 20 a day of service where the Columbine community would give back to those around them through service projects. More than 40 charitable projects were completed by the Columbine community before the 3 p.m. memorial, Anna said.

The memorial featured tearful speeches delivered with courage, but it was also resplendent with joyful reunions as decades of former Columbine students, teachers, staff members, parents and members of the community united together again. Alumni swapped stories of the joys and pitfalls of high school — stink bombs, school dances, beloved and cursed teachers.

Patrick Ireland, who was shot twice in the head and once in the foot during the massacre and still managed to graduate with his class as valedictorian, made the audience chuckle as he recounted watching administrators pour out his buddy’s 10 cases of beer in the school parking lot.

Ireland admitted the week was emotionally draining.

“Our innocence was stolen,” Ireland said. “How can that ever be repaid? Unforgiveness is a silent killer negatively affecting your life. …The key to forgiveness is to stop focusing on what others have done to us and focus on the blessings others have done for us.”

Amber Newcomb, a Columbine alum who graduated a year before the shooting, said she came to the memorial because she will never forget what happened and the lives lost that day.

“Those events inspired me to do the career that I am doing now,” Newcomb said. “I’m a school psychologist because of Columbine.”

Former students wanted to make sure that teens who walk the halls of Columbine today understood the unity that bonded the school — one so fierce it could have come only from collective heartache — was to be treasured and sustained.

“To future Rebels,” Graves said, referencing the school’s mascot, “it is your job to represent this community the way we did. … Learn from our mistakes. … It took tragedy for us to realize we can move past hate.”

Bethany Duffy, current student body president at the high school, thanked the students who came before her for their resiliency — for keeping the school’s spirit and edifice intact so that she could get to experience the magic of the Columbine family.

“I am the product of this incredible community,” Duffy said. “Thank you for rebuilding it.”


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