In the months leading up to Feb. 14, 2019, the one year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, members of the Parkland and Coral Springs community were in search of an event to bring the community closer, to remember the victims and families affected, and to foster a sense of healing and unity. So, the MSD administration partnered with the cities of Coral Springs and Parkland, as well as the faith-based organizations in the area to organize an interfaith service open to all community members.
This interfaith service occurred on the one year anniversary at 6:30 p.m. at Pine Trails Park. To begin, video played, illustrating the experience of the victims’ families while creating their panels for the Parkland Hearts project, which were displayed at the service. Then, religious leaders from different faith-based organizations spoke, including leaders from Congregation Kol Tikvah, Church by the Glades, Coastal Community Church and Park Ridge Church.
“After a couple of rounds of speaking to students and victims, families and just others around the community, we decided that it would be best to let the clergy speak because they understand kind of what the community is going through,” City of Parkland Special Project Manager Gayle Vasile said. “We knew they could speak words of encouragement and reinforce all of the things that we’ve been through in the last year; we wanted to make sure that they brought that message to the community.”
Many students felt that hearing from their religious leaders was extremely empowering and useful, as their religion was a coping mechanism for the past year, and going back to it on the anniversary was an important step towards healing. The city had seen this trend, and understood that an interfaith service would be appropriate in an attempt to help those affected this year.
“When I found out that Gina was one of the victims, it was really hard for me because I knew her from my confirmation class at church, so my religion and church was really important to me so we could be together and have faith,” said junior Karen Villancio-Wolter. “At the park, it was really nice to see all religious leaders together as a sign of unification, but honestly, I was there to be with my friends just as much as for my religion.”
Furthermore, the diversity of faiths represented at the service was appreciated by many in the community. Once they decided the event would be based on faith, the organizers knew each religion should be included in order to promote unity within the community.
Although none of the victims practiced Islam, an imam from the Islamic Foundation of South Florida spoke at the service.
“It was important for the imam to be there because, even though none of the victims were Muslim, those of all communities were affected,” senior Qadir Hameed said. “Islams are part of the community as well, and we wanted to show our solidarity… because Islam is based upon peace and prosperity, and helping others in whatever way we can. So, I was very happy we were represented.”
In order to ensure that each student felt represented, and that the event was done tastefully, the organizers of the event planned tediously. Starting in November 2018, representatives from each faith-based organization, the School Board of Broward County, the City of Parkland, the City of Coral Springs and school administration met each Tuesday in preparation, discussing the logistics of the event, the location and security.
In November, students took a survey during their personalization classes regarding what they wanted to do on the anniversary, and representatives from all student organizations held a meeting to discuss what they envisioned their anniversary day to be. Taking into account these answers, as well as things pushed for throughout the community of family members and parents, the organizers planned multiple service projects utilizing student suggestions. But, they also recognized there needed to be a place for students to congregate after the half day of school, which ended at 11:40 a.m.
Very early on, the group decided that the event should occur at Pine Trails Park, since this was the site of the last year’s vigil on Feb. 15, 2018.
“We all recognized that when students want to go to remember, [Pine Trails Park] has become the place where you all congregate,” Ethics teacher Sandi Davis said. “It’s a common area where everyone in the community have wonderful memories growing up or wonderful memories of the people that we lost, but it’s also the place we went to be together in our heartache and grief in those initial days [after the shooting].”
From there, it became a process of ensuring that this service was one of unity and strength, which brought the community together. This goal required proactive planning of the organization team to ensure that the students and community members felt both physically and emotionally safe at the park and that the event went smoothly.
“I think the event was a success–I hope we gave kids a safe space to go and gather, and to remember how much they’ve overcome the past year, and remember the victims,” Vasile said.
Five thousand students, parents and residents of Coral Springs and Parkland attended the event. More than a religious service, it provided many students with time to reunite with their friends and teachers, and remember those that are missed.
This story was originally published in the April 2019 Eagle Eye print edition.