Nearly a hundred people attend a candlelight vigil at Memorial Park in downtown Stuart on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, to honor the victims of last week's mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The South Fork High School Carillon Choir sang an African song of peace. The vigil, which was organized by Florida PTA, was one of several held simultaneously across the state. XAVIER MASCAREÑAS/TCPALM
More than 20 vigils for the victims of the Parkland school shooting happened simultaneously Monday night at schools, churches and in parks across Florida.
The vigils were organized by the Florida PTA in Orlando to give students, teachers and community members statewide a place to grieve together, said Linda Kearschner, president-elect of the organization.
"We've seen a full range of emotions — great sadness, anger, frustration, resolve to make things better," Kearschner said. "We have all been touched by this tragedy."
The vigils were designed to support children, she said.
Those who could not attend one were asked to participate by changing their profile pictures on social media to a simple image of a candle.
"In a situation like this, when there's been a terrible tragedy, it's important for our teachers to feel supported. They are our first line of defense for our children," Kearschner said. "They are the eyes and ears of our community."
Vigils began promptly at 7 p.m. in 15 counties: Alachua, Broward, Duval, Escambia, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Martin, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Pasco, Pinellas, Seminole and Volusia. Some counties had more than one vigil.
Michelle Salzman, president of the Escambia County Council of PTA, organized the candlelight vigil in Pensacola. About 150 people attended.
We’re here to to honor and to mourn and to begin the healing process from the tragic loss we had last Wednesday,” Salzman said. “To have one night of peace, of prayer, reflection and meditation.”
The purpose of the evening, Salzman said, is to remember the children who were affected or a victim in Broward County.
“We are in this together,” Salzman said. “All children matter.”
Twelve-year-old Ransom Middle School student Allison French was among the attendees at the All Children Are Our Children candlelight vigil Monday evening at East Brent Baptist Church.
French, a seventh-grader, attended the vigil as a student representative to the Escambia County Council of PTA.
French, who was there with her mother, Jolene, said the incident at the Parkland high school last week was scary and eye opening.
“It showed me it can happen and it’s real,” Allison French said. “It can happen at my school.”
— Lisa Nellessen Savage, Pensacola News Journal
About 300 people of all ages filled the bleachers in the Citrus Bowl at Vero Beach High School as the sun set Monday night.
The track was lined with 17 white paper bags, one for each of those who died Feb. 14 when Nikolas Cruz, 19, went to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and opened fire.
The gathering pledged allegiance to a flag still at half-staff. Renditions of “God Bless America” and “You Raise Me Up” echoed across the field. A moment of silence near the beginning of the event was punctuated only by a bird’s chirping and a young child’s babbling.
The message shared by school officials and PTA representatives was one of grief and compassion, but also of determination not to allow the tragedy to repeat itself.
"We can't imagine what it's like to send our babies off to school, trusting that they will be learning, laughing and dreaming — then never see them again," said Julia White, a vice president of the Indian River County Council PTA.
"Our children are not statistics. Enough weeping has occurred to fill oceans. And it will be our mission to make sure that no one ever forgets the names of these victims.”
The stadium's floodlights were dimmed as attendees lifted candles, glow sticks and cellphones into the air. As the names of each victim were read out, candles were clicked on, filling each luminary at the center of the track with an orange glow.
“As an educator, I am used to saying goodbye to students,” said Indian River County School District Superintendent Mark Rendell. “Unfortunately, in a community just to our south, there are educators that are saying goodbye to their students in a much different way.”
Families hugged a little tighter and wiped tears from their eyes as the stadium lights brightened again and the Vero Beach vigil ended with a single lap around the track.
— Mary Helen Moore, TCPalm
In downtown Stuart, about 100 people attended a vigil at Memorial Park. The names of the victims were read aloud, and the South Fork High School Carillon Choir sang an African song of peace.
"As a community, we felt that it was needed," said Tami Larkin, of Stuart, one of the vigil organizers.
Jessica Roberts, of Jensen Beach, one of the other organizers, said their PTA president was out of town.
"I called a few people and Tami responded right away, and said let's just do it. So we just put it together and spread the word on social media."
Both women have students at Jensen Beach High School.
— Xavier Mascareñas, TCPalm
Hundreds gathered at an emotional candlelight vigil held Monday night at the Centre of Tallahassee in remembrance of the 17 lives lost during last week’s massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School.
Survivors of the shooting, concerned mothers and grieving friends shed tears and held each other as the victims’ names were read aloud.
“I wasn’t surprised when I found out that Helena had died protecting other students. ... She would give anything to help other people,” said Stoneman Douglas High School student Sheryl Acquaroli, gasping through tears as she recalled her friend Helena Ramsay, who was killed. Sheryl is one of dozens of students from the school who have come to the capital city to press legislators for stricter gun laws in the wake of the tragedy.
“Our whole community was affected and will never be the same again,” said state Sen. Gary Farmer, District 34. “So we must remember and never forget.”
— Nada Hassanein, Tallahassee Democrat
Though they live in Coral Springs, Kelli Wolff and her son, Max, wanted to show their support for their neighboring community Monday during a vigil at Betti Stradling Park honoring the lives lost in the Parkland school shooting last week.
“Coral Springs and Parkland are one,” Kelli Wolff said of the two cities.
Wolff, a behavior technician at Ramblewood Middle School in Coral Springs, said the past few days have hit the community hard.
“Everything’s solemn,” she said. “It seems like everyone’s coming together.”
For Wolff and her son Max, 13, returning to school on Thursday was difficult. He called her after every class to make sure she was OK and to tell her that he was safe, Wolff said.
“I just checked on you, because we’re very close,” Max said.
Wolff, who lends support for children in grades 6 through 8, said it was important for parents, friends and neighbors to “see something, say something.”
“If the child is doing something it shouldn’t, they need to get help,” she said.
Mental illness is an imbalance in the brain, Wolff said, that needs to be treated with medication and therapies “to level them out.”
“The stigma needs to stop,” she said. “And just report, report, report. Get help, help, help. If nobody listens, keep on, keep on, keep on.”
Stephanie Ortega and her family wore self-made “MSD Strong” shirts to the vigil Monday evening.
As an alumna of the school, the back of Ortega’s shirt read: Class of 2007.
As an expecting mother, the front of her shirt read: MSD Class of 2036.
“We still live in the area so my kids would potentially be going to that school,” she said, her 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old boy racing around a stroller.
Like scores of others Monday, Ortega and her family, who live in Coral Springs, came to show their support for their community in a time of mourning.
“It has been tragic for the entire community,” she said.
Since the shooting, residents have leaned on each other, gathering donations and hosting events, like the one Monday, she said.
“Everyone’s come together immensely,” Ortega said.
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School touched everyone in the community, said Cory Clark, who attended Monday’s vigil in honor of the victims with his wife and kids.
“Everybody’s in shock,” he said. “As sad as it is when it happens anywhere, when it happens so close to you, it’s just unbelievably numbing. You can’t believe that things like his happen. It’s affected everyone in the community. Everybody knows somebody — indirectly, directly. It’s unbelievable.”
Clark’s own two children — Cole and Keaton, ages 6 and 4, respectively — would eventually go to the high school. As a father, the shooting hit close to home for Clark.
“It’s scary,” he said. “Definitely makes you think of a lot of things. I mean, we moved to Coral Springs, because of the good schools here. But… in our country right now, I don’t think you’re safe anywhere.”
— Patrick Riley, Naples Daily News
Dakota Cimetta, 16, and her parents were inside a guidance counselor's office last year when a Code Red alarm went off at J.P. Taravella High School in Coral Springs.
Dakota's father, Dario Cimetta, said they were locked in the room for three hours before the alarm was cleared.
Someone brought a fake gun to school, Dakota said.
"God knew what he was doing when he put the three of us together in that room when that happened," said Silvina Cimetta, Dakota's mom. "They would have had to handcuff me if I had been outside while that was happening."
The family said it was terrifying to not know whether the threat was real.
"We were in the dark," Dario Cimetta said.
"All we could hear was the SWAT team's footsteps while they were running," Dakota said.
The family attended a vigil Monday night at Betti Stradling Park in Coral Springs to honor the lives of the kids who died in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
"It's disgusting that this had to happen," Silvina Cimetta said. "Everyone waits until something happens instead of doing things to keep this from happening."
Dakota hasn't been to school since Thursday.
"We've been afraid of the copycat threats," her dad said. "We don't know if she's safe at school."
"We're part of this community," said Coral Springs Fire Chief Frank Babinec. "Our firefighters and first responders saw some things they shouldn't have seen. We need our community as much as you need us. We are here for you."
Deputy Coral Springs police chief Shawn Backer said officers hoped they would never have to use their training the way they did the day of the shooting.
"There's not one person in this police department who doesn't wish they could have done more to help those people," Backer said. "They are hurting. We are hurting. No matter how much we are hurting, we are here for you."
Several faith leaders offered words of encouragement and strength to the crowd of hundreds.
Rabbi Marci Bloch of Temple Beth Orr shared the proverb "If we build this world from love, then God will build this world from love."
She talked about the teachers and students whose love led to them saving and protecting one another.
"These teachers and students held our children, she said. "We need to hold our children. We need to fight for our children."
Alexi C. Cardona, Naples Daily News