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June 14, 2013

I Survived


Photo Credit: Peter Hapak

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Granada Hills, California
August 10, 1999

Finkelstein was a 16-year-old camp counselor at the North Valley Jewish Community Center when she was shot by white supremacist Buford Furrow Jr. He wounded four others and killed a Filipino postman.

I was walking down the hallway with a camper when I was shot. I thought, I'm going to die. Another counselor held my hand and said, "Just pretend you're dead." Lying there, it dawned on me: I'm Jewish. That's why I was shot. I still struggle with that: Somebody hated me so much he wanted me to die—and almost succeeded. Why did I survive and somebody else didn't?

A year later, when I was a freshman in college, a guy walked into the commons with a Nerf gun. Everyone was laughing, but when he pointed it at me, I got hysterical and sick and was finally hospitalized. Doctors realized that it was a reaction to the trauma—I had not yet dealt with the experience. After that, I spent a year in intensive therapy.

One day when I was in my 20s, at a gun violence awareness event, I met a dad who'd lost his girl at Virginia Tech. He said to me, "You're the same age as my daughter. You have to speak for her forever." I promised I would.

That was when I realized that it was my responsibility to be more vocal. I truly believed in common-sense gun legislation, so I started doing work around that. I started booking speaking engagements and trying to make a difference.

My goal in sharing my story is, I survived for a reason. So what can I do to heal? Telling my story drives me to continue on this path. It's been 14 years since I was injured. And it's still a process. @mindyfink


Blacksburg, Virginia
April 16, 2007

Anderson was a sophomore at Virginia Tech when Seung-Hui Cho entered her class and started shooting. Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17.

The shooting was a blur, but I do remember lying on the floor waiting to be rescued. I couldn't move or speak. As a police officer carried me out of the building, I managed to say, "Thank you." I knew he was taking me away from evil and into the light.

I woke up in the hospital in terrible pain. That's where I learned I had been shot twice in the back and once in the foot. My father explained that parts of my gallbladder, kidney, and large intestine had to be removed. I spent the summer recovering and returned to school that fall.

In December, I had a full-blown panic attack. There were so many triggers on campus—many classrooms looked like the one I was shot in. If there was only one door, I'd silently plan my escape. I started seeing a therapist. And I started doing my own reporting to piece together what had happened to me that day. I interviewed Patrick, the officer who carried me from the building, and Derek, the EMT who got me to the hospital. Filling in the blanks gave me back the control I had lost that day.

My senior year, I was invited to give a talk in D.C. It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. My parents were in the audience—we all cried. I remember thinking, Why would anyone want to hear this story? I didn't yet understand how I could help others.

In 2007, I founded a nonprofit called Koshka, which in Russian means "little kitten," my family nickname. It's dedicated to campus safety and connecting survivors. I also recently helped launch a free smartphone app, LiveSafe, which connects students and police so they can share safety information. The goal is to help students protect themselves from violence. Technology can be so empowering. @koshanderson


Aurora, Colorado
July 20, 2012

Cross and her fiancé, AJ Boik, 18, went to the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. So did James Eagan Holmes, armed with tear gas and firearms. He killed 12 and wounded 58.

AJ was my soul mate. We wanted to be together forever. I just didn't know forever would be so short.

The movie had already started when I saw a silhouette of a man with a gun. I thought it was a gimmick—until people started running. AJ said, "Babe, let's go," then he hit the ground.

It was chaos: dark, loud, smoky. I lay on top of AJ and felt a warm oozing—it was his blood. As I crawled to get help, the guy was still shooting.

Outside, people were dazed and bloody. When the SWAT team surrounded the building, I panicked, thinking, AJ is still in there. Later that day, I finally found out he didn't make it.

August was the darkest month of my life. That's when I started counseling. And when Sandy Hook happened, I spent the day crying, thinking, How is this still happening? Before then, I didn't think about politics. But with Sandy Hook, I thought, What are you going to do about it now?

In February, when Mayors Against Illegal Guns invited me to speak in Washington, D.C., I decided to do it. Since then, I've met too many people who have lost someone to gun violence. I believe that regulating assault weapons would make a difference and am focused on spreading that message. It's my vow that AJ will never be forgotten. @lasamoakathryn

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