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Survivors of Mass Shootings: Three Stories, as Shared by Their Mothers

Frequently forgotten are the stories, struggles and valiant rebuilding efforts of those who survived mass shootings — particularly the youth — but whose physical and emotional scars have yet to heal.

Tabby Refael (on Twitter @RefaelTabby) is a Los Angeles based writer, speaker and activist.

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Tabby Refael
Tabby Refael (on Twitter @RefaelTabby) is a Los Angeles based writer, speaker and activist.

On August 10, 1999, then-sixteen-year-old Mindy Finkelstein was enjoying her first job — a camp counselor at the North Valley Jewish Community Center (JCC)    when a white supremacist entered the building and opened fire. Finkelstein was shot twice in the leg, rendering her the oldest child victim of the shooting. Three other children and an office worker were also wounded in the attack. The shooter, Buford O. Furrow, later shot and killed a mail carrier before being arrested. 

Nearly twenty-three years later, Mindy, according to her mother, Donna “had a very tough few days” last week after hearing news of the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children and two teachers were killed. “She was profoundly sad, angry, and needed to organize a march,” said Donna. Mindy organized a vigil last Thursday in front of San Leandro City Hall to honor the Uvalde victims.

In the aftermath of mass shootings, we understandably focus on the victims who lost their lives, as well as their grieving loved ones. But frequently forgotten are the stories, struggles and valiant rebuilding efforts of those who survived mass shootings — particularly the youth — but whose physical and emotional scars have yet to heal. Here are three stories of how life progressed for three young survivors of mass shootings, as shared by their mothers. 

Mindy’s Story 

As a camp counselor, Mindy Finkelstein was walking a six-year-old camper to the arts and crafts area when the shooter entered the JCC that August day, firing 70 shots. For several of the injured children, that summer marked their first time at a Jewish camp. 

The bullets that entered Mindy’s leg missed her main artery, but she had physical limitations “for a while after,” her mother, Donna Finkelstein, told the Journal. The emotional trauma of having survived the JJC shooting, however, still remains. Mindy suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “She’s having trauma now,” said Donna, with regard to Mindy’s response to last week’s shooting in Texas. Mindy declined an interview with the Journal.

“Mindy was in therapy immediately after the shooting, but the trauma didn’t happen immediately.” – Donna Finkelstein 

“Mindy was in therapy immediately after the shooting, but the trauma didn’t happen immediately,” said Donna. In the years that passed since the shooting, she continued to struggle with PTSD. “Graduating from high school meant leaving my safety zone,” she told the Journal in August 2009, on the ten-year anniversary of the attack. “Everything about me just crumbled. I went up to [the University of California in] Santa Barbara, and within three days, a guy walked into my room with a fake Nerf gun, and that did it for me. My parents came, and I went back home for a year.”

Mindy was hospitalized in an adolescent unit, according to Donna. She had stopped eating and was growing increasingly depressed. News of the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2009, which claimed 32 lives, proved particularly difficult for her. When she was 33, Mindy suffered “a breakdown,” Donna said, when she visited Israel with her fiancé to attend a wedding and saw Israel soldiers in the streets, holding Uzi guns. “She stopped functioning,” said Donna. 

Donna’s two grandsons (from Mindy’s older sister), a fifth grader and second grader, know their aunt was shot over two decades ago. “The trauma goes through the family,” said Donna, who works for Canoga Park High School as intervention counselor. Mindy’s own children are too young to know what happened to their mother.

“Now as an adult, as a mother, as a wife, I almost feel sad for the teenager that I was in that I didn’t end up having what some would consider a normal teenage experience, because my life was altered forever that day,” Finkelstein told “Today” in 2018. “I’m proud of myself for the road I took afterwards.”

Both Donna and Mindy are advocates for gun violence prevention. “I promised myself that once she [Mindy] survived, I’d do everything I could to prevent any other parent from having to face losing a child or being injured by firearms,” she said.

After the shooting, Donna worked with Loren Lieb, whose then-six-year-old son, Joshua, was shot twice in the leg, to co-found the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Million Mom March, which later became the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence. In 2000, the Million Mom March held rallies throughout the country on Mother’s Day, calling for common sense gun control laws. Mindy spoke at the march, and she and Donna also became active in the Women Against Gun Violence and The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

For Mindy, for whom the JJC had been a home away from home since she was five, the attack was a terrible reminder of the pernicious danger of antisemitism. “I was shot because I was Jewish,’’ she said in the 2018 TODAY interview. “That’s painful in a different way.”

One week after Mindy was released from the hospital after the attack, a group of family members — Holocaust survivors — hugged her and said, “You’re one of us.” She also suffered PTSD from having been repeatedly told by many around her that what she had suffered through would change gun legislation in America, only to witness such bills continue to fail at state and federal levels. 

The JCC attack ignited trauma in others who were injured as well. Five-year-old Benjamin Kadish nearly bled to death after bullets pierced his colon and entered the main artery in his right leg. He suffered critical injuries and needed months of physical therapy and additional surgeries. 

Loren’s son, Joshua Stepakoff, also faced challenges after the shooting. In 2009, Loren told the Journal: “We’d go out somewhere, and here’s this cute kid on crutches, and everybody would ask, ‘How did you break your leg?’ and he would say, ‘I got shot.’ And then they would realize who he was. So we stopped going out, because he hated the attention.” 

When asked how Mindy is faring today, Donna responded, “In general, Mindy is doing well,” while also noting her struggle in response to last week’s school shooting. Mindy and other survivors of mass shootings, including those from Sandy Hook Elementary and Virginia Tech, have formed friendships and offer critical support to one another. 

Charlotte and Caleb 

“Like with any kind of shock and grieving, the damage of it really hits you later,” said Sara Lowell, whose son, Caleb (then a freshman) and daughter, Charlotte (then a senior) survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 students and staff on February 14, 2018. “I always thought when the news trucks leave, that’s when it’s really going to hit them,” said Sara. As it turned out, she was right. During the initial weeks after the shooting, the community was “surrounded by help,” she reflected, and constantly approached by the media. Every day, another communal gathering took place at their “headquarters” — a local park. There were memorial shrines as well as grief counselors. But after a month or so, according to Sara, things inevitably began to shift back to normal.

“The hardest part for my kids afterwards was breaking those habits: Caleb was always saving a bus seat for his friend, Alaina; after she was killed, her seat was empty, and Caleb watched as the bus drove past her stop.”
– Sara Lowell 

Both Caleb and Charlotte lost friends in the shooting. “The hardest part for my kids afterwards was breaking those habits: Caleb was always saving a bus seat for his friend, Alaina; after she was killed, her seat was empty, and Caleb watched as the bus drove past her stop,” said Sara tearfully. “His friend, Alex, played in the trombone section of the band with him. After Alex was killed, they kept his chair, until one day, the teacher just pulled it. Caleb came home so upset that day.”

Charlotte’s friend, Carmen, with whom she attended AP Literature class, was also killed in the shooting. That day, one class period before the attack began, Carmen stood up in class and read an assignment: A poem for Valentine’s Day. 

“In class, at least, the desk of every child who was killed remained a shrine,” said Sara. “No one sat in it.”

Less than a year after the shooting, while enrolled in her freshman year at college, Charlotte “fell apart,” according to Sara. “Charlotte decided she didn’t want to be in America and tried to complete her freshman year abroad in London, but as soon as she arrived there, she didn’t want anyone to know about her experience. She even lied about her hometown,” said Sara. Not wanting to be defined by the Parkland massacre, she nevertheless became increasingly disturbed by one question, which she continued to ask her mother during frequent calls from London: “How are people going on with their lives?” Charlotte asked incredulously.

“After the shooting, Charlotte had therapy, but she still became very depressed. I saw every sign of depression. I think the kids who survived all have survivor’s guilt. They all struggled with that.”- Sara Lowell 

“After the shooting, Charlotte had therapy, but she still became very depressed,” said Sara. “I saw every sign of depression. I think the kids who survived all have survivor’s guilt. They all struggled with that.” 

Charlotte was particularly traumatized after the shooting from fear that her younger brother, Caleb, was dead. During the shooting, she hid inside a band locker, and heard that a friend, Ashley, had been shot. According to Sara, her teacher began to scream that no one should use their phones, in case any lights attracted the shooter. For one-and-a-half hours, her family sent frantic calls to a family group text, asking, “Charlotte, where are you?” and “Charlotte, chime in.” Charlotte finally was evacuated and collapsed on a grass field across from the school. When she saw her brother emerge from the campus alive, she ran into his arms. 

After the shooting, Sara called Parkland Cares, which was established after the shooting to offer free mental health care to those affected by the trauma, but Charlotte kept repeating, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Eventually, she was able to access therapy and begin the long road to rebuilding her life. 

In the past four years, Charlotte has “discovered exercise and yoga and things that are great for her brain,” said Sara. Now 22, she recently completed her undergraduate studies in urban planning and architecture, and will begin a master’s program in the fall. Caleb, now 19, is enrolled in a local university. Charlotte declined an interview with the Journal; Caleb is currently studying abroad and could not be reached.

“Both kids feel as though you can’t buy a beer, but you can buy an assault rifle and ammunition,” said Sara. After Caleb participated in a Birthright trip to Israel, he came back home and asked why “American schools couldn’t be like in Israel, with much tighter security measures. Maybe that (stringent security measures in Israel) is not normal,” said Sara, “but this — school shootings in America — is normal?” 

“I saw trauma in their faces”

“I remember, for the rest of the year, many children didn’t go back to school; there were therapists and therapy dogs on campus every day, and three red-beret-wearing Guardian Angels had a tent set up to give the kids a sense of security,” Rabbi Shuey Biston of Chabad of Parkland told the Journal.

Biston was one of the first to arrive at the perimeters that February day, as children were running out of classes, screaming. He offered them use of his cellular phone to call their parents. “I saw trauma in their faces,” he said. “Shock and fear. One of them was had stepped over bodies to escape,” Biston recalled. After the shooting, Biston and fellow rabbis from Chabad of Parkland visited the school each Friday, “just to be there.” He estimated that roughly 300 of the students had held their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at the Chabad center. “A lot of the kids just knew us,” said Biston, “and after the shooting, we would go to just be there; to be comforting.”

But Biston understands the lingering pain of those who survive such horrors: “The pain is unbearable,” he said. “In a small community, where everyone knows everyone, there is a tremendous amount of messaging, on the one hand, that you’re the most fortunate if your child survives. But on the other hand, if your friend or neighbor’s child is taken, there’s a tremendous amount of survivor’s guilt, knowing you’ve been saved and someone else hasn’t.”

Biston estimates that at the time of the shooting, nearly 30 percent of the student population at Douglas High School was Jewish. After the attack, Chabad of Parkland partnered with The Shabbat Project to offer every Jewish girl at the school a pair of Shabbat candlesticks. And students who wanted a mezuzah for their front door also received one (over 1,000 mezuzot were distributed, according to Biston).  

When asked how most Parkland students who survived the attack fared in the months and years that passed, Biston stressed that they responded “with absolute resiliency. You saw them march in Washington; their voices were heard. These kids created movements and were strong. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t plenty of students who were depressed, who changed schools, and there were two suicides from kids enrolled at the school that year.” But the city and the local organizations responded strongly, said Biston. In addition to Parkland Cares, Eagles’ Haven Wellness Center opened in March 2019 to “rediscover wellness and restore hope to the Parkland/Coral Springs community following the tragic school shooting,” according to its website. The center offers “wellness experiences” ranging from yoga and dance to creative art classes and support groups. All services are free to nearly 700 students, parents and teachers. 

“After the shooting, so many students asked me why G-d had allowed this to happen,” said Biston. “There is no answer to that question. There’s evil in this world. That’s a fact. What we need to do is to combat that evil, The Rebbe taught us that when you see evil in this world, you overpower it with light. That will overwhelm the forces of darkness, and that’s what we did here.”

Last week on her Facebook page, Mindy, who survived the 1999 JCC shooting, posted the following: 

The ones that will survive will suffer. Not just today and not just until they get out of the hospital. You want examples? When I was pregnant, I had to have lead testing to ensure the bullets from 20 years ago wouldn’t affect my blood stream. I tried to have shrapnel removed but it caused shingles to pop out instead. And this was just in the last four years. Since I was shot almost 23 years ago, I have had countless panic attacks. I had two complete mental breakdowns. I’ve been tormented by neo-Nazis thinking I should have died. I have nerve damage in my leg and large scars I get asked about constantly. And I’m one of the luckiest ones. I survived a mass shooting, but survival should never be ignored. Keep the survivors in mind today and 20 years from now. They will never be the same.

In fear of the gunman in the Uvalde shooting, 11-year-old survivor Miah Cerrillo told CNN that she smeared the blood of a dead friend on herself and played dead. Her mother told the news outlet that Miah is traumatized and can’t sleep. 

As more and more facts emerge from last week’s horrific tragedy in Texas, the stories of those who survive mass shootings remain a critical element in how we remember, and more importantly, how we respond to such attacks. Case in point: In fear of the gunman in the Uvalde shooting, 11-year-old survivor Miah Cerrillo told CNN that she smeared the blood of a dead friend on herself and played dead. Her mother told the news outlet that Miah is traumatized and can’t sleep. The young girl spoke during the interview while wrapped in a blanket, despite the heat. Earlier, the sound of a vacuum cleaner at a car wash “completely set her off,” according to Miah’s mother. Miah agreed to the CNN interview so that others would know what it’s like for survivors of school shootings, but also to prevent such future horrors. 

But Sara, whose children survived the Parkland shooting, sees things differently: “No one cares,” she said. “Next week, this won’t be in the news. They forgot about us. If the Parkland kids can’t make change, nobody will. Nothing happened. And nothing is going to happen again.”


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker, and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @TabbyRefael

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