First-grader Josephine "Joey" Gay was planning to celebrate her seventh birthday with her classmates at a party planned for Dec. 15, 2012. Joining the party would be Joey's close buddy, Emilie Parker.
“These two were fast friends,” Joey’s mother, Michele Gay, tells PEOPLE. “Two peas in a pod. They both liked Fancy Nancy and had this kind of literally unspoken bond around all things girly."
Though unable to speak because of her autism, Joey could still understand what people were saying to her and loved soaking in all Emilie had to tell her.
“Emilie was a chatterbox,” she says. “She would just chatter to Joey, who loved it. She was happy to sit there and listen to Emilie all day long. It was a perfect little relationship.”
Then tragedy struck.
On Dec. 14, 2012, Joey and Emilie were among the 26 first-graders and educators who were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
Monday marks the eighth anniversary of the shooting, which remains painful for the victims’ families, including Gay, and Emilie’s mother, Alissa Parker.
“Our hearts seem to get heavier as the date approaches no matter what we do,” says Gay, who celebrated what would have been Joey's 15th birthday on Friday. “As early as September, you just start to feel the march to it approaching and you brace yourself for it and think about how you are going to prepare for it.”
For Parker, this year’s anniversary is particularly bittersweet since she has never been in Utah, where Emilie is buried, on the day of the anniversary.
“But this year, I happen to be where she is buried, so I think it’s going to be more somber because we will be able to visit her grave and where she is," she says.
But Gay and Parker have each other to lean on for support.
Before the shooting, they had spoken to each other but had never met in person. They were going to meet for the first time at Joey’s birthday party.
In 2013, the pair joined forces to form Safe and Sound Schools to better protect students and educators by improving school safety nationwide.
After the shooting, “the friendship and support we had for one another turned into the fruits of Safe and Sound Schools and this legacy for the girls,” says Gay.
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The non-profit “provides research-based tools and support for crisis-prevention, response, and recovery,” according to its website.
Since its inception, it has impacted more than 16.6 million students, reached more than 32,000 schools nationwide through education, training and resources, and had more than 31,260 Straight-A Safety Toolkits viewed from all 50 states and 163 countries, the website says.
The non-profit offers three comprehensive programs: Parents for Safer Schools, Safe and Sound Students, and Post Crisis Support Network.
In 2019, the organization hosted a Congressional briefing on school safety on Capitol Hill and hosted its inaugural National Summit on School Safety. It hosted its 2020 Summit virtually.
In 2019, actor Jeremy Ray Taylor helped kick off the “Good Days” tour and contest, asking high school students to work on promoting a positive school culture.
A new chapter for Parker
Recently, Parker announced that she’s going to step away from playing an active role at the non-profit she co-founded.
Though she tells PEOPLE she will still be working with Safe and Sound Schools “on the sidelines and be there to help when needed,” she says, “I will be spending more time with my family and continuing to work on my own personal healing.
“I am actually at peace with not having the way Emilie died be a constant narrative I have to talk about all the time,” she says.
With Gay staying on as executive director, the non-profit they started in honor of their daughters — in part to prevent other families from enduring the pain they have as mothers — “is in good hands,” says Parker.
“I’m super excited for where Safe and Sound Schools is going,” she says. “It’s so positive and I am so glad I was a part of that.
“I hope that the growth that they have and the amazing content they have created and continue to create is able to reach an even bigger audience."
Looking back, the two moms are proud of all they have accomplished.
“Michele and I from the very beginning have stayed consistent with our goals, the moral compass and the integrity we wanted to run Safe and Sound Schools with so that we could honor our daughters without compromising those strong beliefs,” she says.
“Each year we get better at celebrating their lives so that it’s less about the trauma and more about the light and the hope and the legacy we built for our girls.”
For more information on Safe and Sound Schools and to donate to its mission, please visit safeandsoundschools.org.
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