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Child Watch® Column: “Overcoming Evil”

Release Date: July 11, 2014

Marian Wright Edelman

Nelba Márquez-Greene is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has spent her life helping others. In December 2012 she was the coordinator of a youth and adolescent outpatient psychiatric clinic and a university instructor supervising six clinical interns. But nothing in her professional training could have prepared her for what she, her family, and community would experience after her beautiful six-year-old daughter Ana Grace and twenty-five other children and teachers were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

“I imagine our home was not that much different than many others . . . I was married to my high school sweetheart and the mother of two beautiful children. My husband, Jimmy, was working fifteen minutes from our house as a professor at a local university. We were both happy to be back in Connecticut and so close to New York City. On December 13th we went out to dinner to the Cheesecake Factory, which we never, ever, ever did during the week. After dinner, Jimmy took the kids home and I stayed at the mall to buy their Christmas gifts.

“And then everything changed.

“The next morning, Ana, our daughter and Isaiah’s sister, was executed while hiding in the tiny bathroom of her first grade classroom. Her teachers along with four other educators and 19 of her schoolmates were also murdered. My son physically survived the massacre. But he was in the building at the time of the shooting. He heard the shots that took his sister’s life. He remembers the screaming, the crying. He remembers his teacher’s survival instructions: Please be quiet and please be still.

“A reverse 911 call that Friday morning led to the beginning of a never ending nightmare. We waited for hours in that firehouse. First believing she was missing. Then understanding that she was probably hurt. And then to accept the probability that she was dead . . . We’d both come from large families and dreamed of having one of our own someday. And on that 14th of December of 2012, after hours of waiting in a firehouse, those dreams were shattered in one sentence: The shooter killed twenty children.

Nelba and her family are now the founders of the Ana Grace Project of Klingberg Family Centers, whose mission is to promote love, connection, and community for every child and family. They aim to use research, practical tools, professional development, and public policy to identify the best ways to build those connections and then use them to prevent violence and promote recovery. She and her husband Jimmy say they believe love and community are the antidotes for violence and are dedicated to creating real solutions to the kind of violence that took their daughter’s life—spurred on by their faith and belief that it is always best to ‘Overcome Evil with Good.’

As her family continues along their own “continuum from overwhelmed to overcoming,” Nelba has become even more determined to help other families, especially other children, facing trauma. As she told an audience at New York University in May: “Our son not only lost his sister but is a living witness of trauma. As devastating as this event is—we know he is not alone. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, nearly fifty percent of America's school aged children (approximately 35 million) have lived at least one adverse childhood experience. Trauma, like cancer, is an equal opportunity predator. Race, socio-economic status, and ethnic composition offer few buffers from its potentially devastating consequences . . . According to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, ‘the future of any society depends on its ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation.’ We are a society in grave danger. Ignoring the impact of trauma and not taking the steps to educate our citizens about its potentially devastating consequences should be criminal. It is a public health crisis—costing millions of dollars in medical care, taxing our schools, hospitals, jails and mental health clinics.”

She pointed out that as common as traumatic experiences may be, there is far too little education right now on the best ways to help families work through them: “As a nation, we have an elementary perception of what ‘help’ is. Help wasn’t getting a thousand teddy bears. Help wasn’t being sent a million pink baby blankets. While both were sent in droves by people just wanting to help, the baby blankets were so triggering for me. Each blanket was another reminder of what I would never have again.” Instead, for her own family it was the regular, consistent, loving support from family, friends, neighbors, and community members that truly got them through and the thousands of messages from people committed to fighting for justice and peace. “In each instance, they delivered the same message: ‘We are here and we will not leave you.’ And they have kept their promise. Their efforts provided us a sense of safety and a sense of control. They provided a sense of community, connection, and love in the midst of chaos, fear, and loss.”

Yet she is acutely aware that not everyone who suffers trauma is blessed with the same support: “Any event that is perceived as a threat will evoke a fight, flight, or freeze response. This response is hard wired in our nervous systems and was designed to be a short term response to threats to our survival. The way it is supposed to work is after the threat is survived, the fight, flight, or freeze response ends. What I am seeing now, and I’m sure you’re seeing it too, is a generation of folks stuck in that loop of fight, flight, and freeze. People without the ability to regulate themselves, and without a network of regulating relationships.” And this is why Nelba Márquez-Greene is now so passionate about recreating that loving support for every child, both before and after they experience trauma. “It’s more than just a project, it’s where and how we see ourselves responding to this tragedy. For us, Isaiah is going to one day look back and say, this is what my parents did and how they responded when my sister was killed. The beauty of Ana’s life and spirit was stolen from us. And we want him to be able to say that we tried to put some beauty back in the world.”

I hope all of us will reach out to make our own communities safer for children. As neighbors, members of civic organizations, sororities and fraternities, and faith communities, create connections for children, youth, and families in your communities who may be suffering silently with no support from family or friends. Make them feel part of something bigger. Let them know you will be there for them. Remember words that have become the Márquez-Greene family’s motto: “Love Wins.” And work without ceasing for common sense gun safety measures to stop the scourge of violence in America.


Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Submitted by Tina at: July 14, 2014
If not a gun, then a knife, a bomb, a baseball bat, an axe, a machete, etc. The gun does not shoot itself, there is a human being pulling that trigger. The gun is NOT the issue, but rather it is the human condition. Maybe we should get better leadership, someone who doesn't have an agenda to take our guns away. Here is an idea...How about the psychotropic medications that are making our kids do crazy things? Oh, but then big Pharma would take a hit. So our leadership can't do that, or there goes all of those campaign contributions. Good grief. Let's get real!!

Submitted by Peter : ^ ) } at: July 14, 2014
Thanks again, Marian for your steadfast support. One way we're reaching out to community is with the Trauma Resource Institute's "Community Resiliency Model". It's a train-the-trainer for people to become resiliency-informed as well as trauma-informed, and there's a free app at the website: http://traumaresourceinstitute.com/ Peace, Peter : ^ ) }

Submitted by Shirley Marie at: July 13, 2014
Thank you for this article.This article highlights the urgency for meaningful action, individually and collectiively to attack the roots of violence in our schools and to end these senseless killings. Love, understanding, empathy, sympathy knowledge can not begin too early . Efforfts must be sustaned by family, friends, cultural /religious institutions and government committment to end this carnage of our children in and out of our schools. I plan to forward this message to my friends and to my coleagues at my college.

Submitted by JaneGilgun at: July 13, 2014
Yes, love is the only effective answer. There are millions of ways to do that. Promoting the healthy development of children is another. Directly challenging ideologies that encourage violence is another. Millions of people enjoy violence every day and many make a lot of money creating and selling it. What can we say to them?

Submitted by JaneGilgun at: July 13, 2014
Great column. Yes, the only effective response is love. There are millions of ways to do this, and each of us has a part to play. The promotion of the healthy development of children is one way. Challenging ideologies that encourage violence is another. Billions of people enjoy violence and many people are wealthy from creating and selling violent media.

Submitted by Patty at: July 12, 2014
The column is beautifully written, the content inspiring. I often print it to send to a friend or to reread it at leisure. Re guns, though: kindness and civility won't help We need to make congressional hacks more afraid of us than of the NRA.

Submitted by Ree at: July 12, 2014
This was a beautifully written account of the trauma this family experienced as well,as every other family in Newtown. I am an educator and working to make our schools a lace of care, support and love. I look forward to learning more. Thank you for the courage to turn your loss into a mission to change the world for our children. You have my deepest respect.

Submitted by MaryOC at: July 12, 2014
The story was touching. As a founder of an agency for children of divorce and their parents, we see intergenerational trauma, when the parent, who themselves were abused, subjected to violence marry and replay that same story in their own lives. Trauma work is important in the healing for the sake of the children, so we don't repeat this violence for the next generation. We applaud this mom and her courage to step forward and talk about erasing violence in our communities.

Submitted by Katie at: July 12, 2014
I just want to know more about this.

Submitted by Anonymous at: July 12, 2014
I loved this column and I think the Márquez-Greene family's motto "Love Wins" is so inspiring. There is far too much hate in the world and the response to gun violence in this country focused on the wrong solution of allowing others to carry weapons in order for us to feel safe. This family has taken something so tremendously devastating and is focusing on the best solution. I am so sorry for their loss of their beautiful daughter.

Submitted by Jmarie at: July 12, 2014
Outstanding, well-written article. I applaud your insight,and attention to the abusive violence toward children affecting mind, body, and soul.

Submitted by Anonymous at: July 12, 2014
I find it incomprehensible that guns should be so easily available in our country. It does not make sense and leads to tragedy.

Submitted by Annabelle at: July 12, 2014
Dear Marian, Thank you for your wonderful writing...such an inspiration! Today's piece on "Love Wins" (the Ana Grace project) has really moved my heart... Blessings on you and your efforts to alert your readers to the opportunities daily to allow Christ's love to fill and overflow our hearts, overcoming the brokenness and agony of lives who don't know the Life of grace and love He offers... Sincerely yours, Anna p.s. my daughter's name is Grace, so that is why I won't forget this particular little girl and the admirable response of her parents to her death!!! Thanks again...

Submitted by Peace and Love at: July 11, 2014
There are few communities in America that are safe for kids and families because of the infiltration of drugs, drug trafficking and violence. No matter the reason, our communities are no longer a place of love, peace and tranquility. It is shameful that little is being done to protect our children from living in violent, hostile, and dangerous communities. We may as well be living in a third world country. Our elected officials refuse to address the problem; our judges appear to prefer the revolving door for criminals to continue their illegal acts, instead of prosecuting and meting out punishment in accordance with the law. Our government appears to fund every country’s problem without consideration for the critical social and mental health issues that continues to fuel the violence that is plaguing communities of every demographic of American society. Let’s put more money in funding mental health programs, social workers and special programs to improve the lives of troubled youth and adults. Our government will continue to spend billions of dollars on foreign aid to rebuild foreign countries until Americans elect representatives who support legislation that establishes programs and activities to invest in its most precious resource--its people.

Submitted by SOLO at: July 11, 2014
I cry as I read through these pages, this December 14. 2012 grieve me and reminded me on December 1989 civil crisis that lasted for 14 years (Brutal civil war) which I will never forget.. My sister and my brother were brutal murdered split from the back and took off his heart. War is not good as well as violence against humanity. So bad!

Submitted by Grandmothers against Gun Violence.org, Cape Cod at: July 11, 2014
The essence of this article is why we began our work for gun violence prevention and for promoting mental health literacy in our communities. Thank you for this meaningful article.

Submitted by Ille at: July 11, 2014
There is not valid reason that any civilian should have a gun. If this were so, there is no doubt that much of the violence in this country would be stopped