Empowered Gun Violence Survivors are the Real Champions

Just taking a breath can be the first step

CNN recently named Sandy and Lonnie Phillips/Survivors Empowered one of their 2023 Champions for Change.

Survivors Empowered was founded by Sandy and Lonnie Phillips after the shooting death of their daughter, Jessi Redfield Ghawi along with 11 other people, in the 2012 Aurora, CO theater shootings. The organization is dedicated to helping gun violence survivors navigate the immediate aftermath and cope with the longer-term trauma.

Merriam-Webster defines champion as “a winner of first prize or first place in competition.” For gun violence survivors—including most notably the family and friends of shooting victims, as well as shooting survivors themselves—becoming a champion starts with taking the first agonizing breaths to survive unthinkable tragedy.

For many survivors, just getting out of bed takes the strength of a champion. Surviving each day listening to the relentless tick-tick-tick of a clock as searing emotional pain overtakes all other thoughts is a major accomplishment. Surviving each day comes first; empowerment comes down the road. 

Address the present, let the future unfold
The words of our daughter, Jessi, seven weeks before she was killed, speak to the enormity of those passing seconds: “I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift.”

Sometimes, breathing is all that survivors can do to move forward; the strength to do so is herculean. Very slowly, grieving turns into transforming the hard lessons of the tragedy into constructive action to better the world. For many parents, raising children with love and honesty without the help of their gunned-down partner can be the best way to transform tragedy into empowerment.

These championship-caliber contributions too often get lost amid survivor guilt over not getting involved right away in the gun violence prevention movement. They equate making a big splash in their communities and the country-at-large with the definition of a champion.

What makes a gun survivor a champion?
In reality, taking care of themselves and their families is one hallmark of a gun survivor champion. A few ultimately move on to activism about gun violence and the need to support survivors, work that sadly will remain much needed when ready to tackle it.

Our job is to help gun violence survivors get through the worst time of their lives, so they can move forward in the way that most calls to them. For us, that was creating an organization to help survivors. Each person has to assess how best they can make a contribution, which doesn’t need to be high-profile. Most are “quiet champions” who make a valuable positive impact on others around them.

Ways to help

For those ultimately deciding to speak out to help gun violence survivors, options abound. In addition to more widely publicized mass events, survivors include families and friends of gun suicide victims, casualties of individual shootings, and domestic abuse victims. Following are ways to help that have proven the most impactful:

  • Provide support and referrals for services to survivors of violence, and connect survivors to a support network of others nearby.   
  • Educate survivors about how to tell their stories in a compelling way to speak to the issue of violence in their communities.  
  • Facilitate ability of wounded gun violence survivors to archive their stories for research purposes.
  • Make available a Rapid Response Team made up of veteran survivors of violence that have walked the brutal walk of survivorship. After a mass casualty event, local governments and law enforcement are overwhelmed. Victims are in total shock or fighting for their lives. No one understands what these survivors need better than those of us who have gone through it.
  • Advocate for and educate about meaningful gun violence prevention, industry by industry. For example, the hospitality industry can help by promoting safe and secure gun management, either by securing arms in a hotel safe or with trigger locks. Further, the industry can provide valuable education about suicide prevention, domestic violence, and human trafficking, all sadly woven inextricably into gun violence. Other relevant industry measures include: Helping hospitals find the most effective way to prevent civilian firearms from being brought into medical facilities; and creating a new media standard that will reduce the portrayal of firearms in the entertainment industry and call for fees that will fund survivors’ needs. 

Empowered gun violence survivor champions come in many sizes, shapes, and forms. Most important is for survivors to find a path that enables positive and productive contributions at any level—starting with themselves and their families and friends.

About Survivors Empowered 
Tragically, the 2012 Aurora, CO theater shooting death of Jessi Redfield Ghawi, daughter of Survivors Empowered founders Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, became the catalyst for the organization’s existence. Survivors Empowered has become a nationally prominent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization directly supporting and educating gun violence survivors, including most notably the family and friends of shooting victims, as well as shooting survivors themselves. Resources include: Survivors Toolkit co-authored with Gabby Giffords, Trauma Therapy Resources, and Mindfulness Courses. Mobile therapy retreats are planned for 2024.  As Sandy and Lonnie learned firsthand, surviving family and friends need much help to navigate the new reality they face. CNN and anchor Anderson Cooper are recognizing Sandy and Lonnie Phillips/Survivors Empowered as an uplifting community champion for empowering survivors of gun violence to move forward with their lives. Among other nationally-prominent media, Survivors Empowered has been covered by 60 Minutes, CNN, BBC, AP, and USA Today. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips have co-authored two books, including Forgotten Survivors of Gun Violence: Wounded. For more information, to get help, and to donate or buy books/merchandise visit: www.survivorsempowered.org.

Media Contacts

Penny Okamoto
Executive Director, Survivors Empowered
503-984-4152 cell/text 

Mark Lusky
Mark Lusky Communications
303-621-6136 cell/text

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