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First Person

How to make a difference after a school shooting

Order pizza. Make lunches. Make beds. The psychological power of being a host.

By Julia Beck

On March 24, 2018, thousands of high school and college students descended on Washington, D.C. for the March for Our Lives rally against gun violence. Six of them left from my home in Chevy Chase, Maryland and made the 20-minute trek to the National Mall, carrying homemade signs, brown bag lunches, water bottles, and loaded Metro fare cards.

These were not my daughters. All but two were strangers: college students from Temple University, Mount Holyoke, and Smith. The night prior, they had settled down in beds and sofas I’d freshly made up. After the march, I gave them lotion for their sunburn and sent each off for a well-earned nap. This was my own form of protest, deployed five weeks after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — an event that launched a wave of student activism and created a group of proxy parents.

As a parent, a school shooting makes you feel helpless — not just because you imagine your child in that horrific situation, but because you don’t know what to do to fix the problem. Tweeting your frustration doesn’t do much. Neither does calling Congress to lobby for change. This is how a group of mothers in the D.C. area, whose children range from toddlers to college-aged kids, felt as we watched the Parkland students in the days following the tragedy.

We were looking for a way to help that felt both meaningful and personal. Making lunches and beds, it turned out, worked surprisingly well.

I had filled the bathrooms with towels and amenities and ordered ample pizza, but I wasn’t sure how to insert myself into the conversation.

I first heard about the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting as I was waiting to board a flight overseas. My phone blew up: Post after post after message after news alert. An old friend who had moved to Parkland checked in. Her daughter had been at the school, and she was safe.

I was distraught, far away, and about to get farther. So I leapt to attention a few days later, when the March for Our Lives was announced and a D.C.-area attorney named Elizabeth Andrews, the mother of a high school senior, tweeted that she was willing to help find housing for the marchers.

A flurry of messages followed and the March for Our Lives Lodging Network was born.

In the end, nine women led the organizing, identifying more than 1,600 families willing to host guests, working to match marchers with homes, and managing the media attention that quickly arrived.

Not all of the homes offered were used, so people shifted to other tasks: assembling 1,300 brown bag lunches, handing out lunches at Metro stops, purchasing Metro cards. One woman who lived too far from the city to host still sent in brown bag lunches, each decorated with an inspirational message from a child or young adult.

The day before the march, my houseguests arrived in two groups. The first to show up was a pair of fashionable girls who had taken the train to Washington, visited with friends on the way, and arrived full of energy and hyper-focus for sign-making. The next four girls arrived in a car that had gotten stuck, at one point, on the side of the road. They were more reserved and took in their surroundings quietly.

At first, I was concerned, like any mother would be; they seemed worlds apart.

But before long, they were gathered around my kitchen table, eating pizza and working on signs. They played a full-on game of social geography, finding friends and interests in common. They talked about their mutual passion for gun control. One of the girls was the daughter of a friend, so we FaceTimed with her mother and laughed.

As with my own teenage and twenty-something daughters, it seemed my role was limited. I had filled the bathrooms with towels and amenities and ordered ample pizza, but I wasn’t sure how to insert myself into the conversation.

But by the next morning, the visitors were peppering me with questions. What was my experience with marches? Where had I gone to school? How old were my kids? Why was I hosting? They asked what I did for a living and about my sweet dog, Addie.

The day after the march, they drove away — still strangers, in a sense, but also partners in a compact, shared experience. I filled their cars with road snacks. I shared my email and photos from the weekend. It was a warm goodbye, made even sweeter when I discovered that they had stripped the beds and sofas and put the sheets in the laundry room.

As they left, some of the students gave me flowers. Weeks later I received a thank-you card in the mail. Inside was a handwritten note signed by four of the girls. “Dear Julia,” it began, and went on to thank me for my hospitality and generosity. “We’ll always remember the march,” they wrote, “and we’ll always remember your kindness.”

The feeling was mutual.

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Julia Beck is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

Top photo of March for Our Lives rally by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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