Survivors of the Red Lake school shooting in 2005 are on the road to Newtown, Connecticut today to show their support for the victims and survivors of the elementary school shooting there. And they have a gift to share.
Most of the 13 Red Lake tribal members making the trip experienced their own school shooting first-hand. Nearly 8 years ago, a 16-year-old student killed nine people on the northern Minnesota reservation -- most at the school -- before taking his own life.
Red Lake tribal police officer Justin Jourdain is among those making the journey. When he heard the news about the shooting rampage in Connecticut, he immediately felt drawn to go there. Jourdain was in ninth grade when a gunman walked into his school in 2005.
"We just want to show them that they're not alone, and there's other people out in the world that know what they're going through," he said.
Ashley Lajeunesse was Jourdain's classmate that year. She recalls that after the shooting, former students from Columbine High School in Colorado came to visit. In 1999, Columbine was the site of another mass shooting, where two teenagers killed 13 people before killing themselves. And she remembers Columbine visitors sharing stories and experiences in ways that were comforting. She and her classmates feel compelled to do the same for people in Newtown.
"It meant so much to us for them to show us that there's actually hope of healing," she said. "We figured that it's our calling for us to go down there and show these little kids that there's hope of healing."
It took several years of treatment and therapy before Lajeunesse experienced that sense of healing. On the day of the Red Lake shooting, she was in a classroom and saw a teacher and five classmates killed. She says she's alive only because one of her classmates jumped in front of her to save her. Chase Lussier didn't survive.
"It's going to be hard for them," in Newtown, especially because so many of the victims were small children, she said.
"We know not to be afraid to talk about it, because we know holding it in, we have a couple of people that never even talked about it, never spoke of it, and they're at their worst right now. And then the ones who actually came out and gathered with other people and talked about it as much as they can, they're the ones that are actually able to move forward, or have moved forward now," she said.
The former students say they don't have a concrete plan for when they get to Newtown. They have made arrangements to help a New York toy company give away stuffed teddy bears. They also have a Red Lake Nation flag with them that they'd like to present to the community.
Otherwise, Lajeunesse says she just hopes she gets the chance to share some words of comfort.
"I plan on telling them to just make sure to be with their mommies and daddies, because I know they were all young, young little babies, still. Let them know to talk to their moms and dads. Make sure to let them know how they're feeling. Don't keep anything in. Don't be afraid. And that it will get better one day," Lajeunesse said.
The former Red Lake students are also taking a gift with them. It's a plaque that they received from former students at Columbine. They hope to offer it to the students and faculty of Sandy Hook Elementary. They hope it never has to be passed on to another school in the future.