How One Sandy Hook Hero is Honoring the Lives Lost

Kaitlin Roig-Debellis. Photo by Michelle BelleFirst grade teacher Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis and her students had just sat down for their morning meeting on December 14, 2012, when the unmistakable sound of gunshots rang out. Roig-DeBellis could tell the blasts were coming from near the entrance of the school, less than 50 feet from where her class sat. Knowing she had only seconds to act, Roig-DeBellis ran to turn out the lights and close the door (the keys were in her desk on the other side of the room so she couldn't lock it). Then she told her students to get into the bathroom. "They looked confused and said, 'what do you mean?' so I just repeated myself with the same firmness and seriousness and they knew they needed to listen," says Roig-DeBellis. "They could tell something was very wrong." She packed her entire class into the tiny three-foot by four-foot space — lifting some kids onto the toilet — barricaded the door with a rolling bookshelf and waited. "Ours is the first classroom you come to after entering the school so the only option was to hide," she says.

Over shrieks of terror and blasting bullets, Roig-DeBellis told her kids she loved them. "We heard people pleading 'please no.' We heard gunshots but I needed them to stay calm and quiet so I just kept whispering that it was all going to be OK and that we were going to go home soon," she says. "If one of them started to cry we all would have started to cry and I couldn't risk that." Roig-Debellis estimates that they were in the bathroom for around 45 minutes before a swat team came to rescue them. It's unclear whether the gunman entered Roig-Debellis's classroom or walked past thinking it was empty, because the door was closed and the lights were out (there was also a piece of blue construction paper covering the window in the door left over from a lockdown drill earlier in the year). Regardless, one thing is certain: Roig-DeBellis's quick thinking saved those kids' lives that day. The 20 children and two first grade teachers killed in the shooting were in the next two rooms, one of them adjoining Roig-DeBellis's. She doesn't like being called a hero: "I just did what anybody would do," she says, but everyone from her students' parents to President Obama has hailed her as such.

I got to know Roig-DeBellis a few months ago when I wrote about her for Glamour — she was named one of its 2013 Women of The Year and I had the privilege of writing her profile. Full disclosure: I almost didn't take the assignment because as a mother to a first grader, a pregnant hormonal mess at the time and a human, I didn't think I could handle hearing intimate horrors of the Newtown shooting. Like most parents, I still think about that day often. And when I imagine the grief those families are dealing with, the fact that they put their six- and seven-year-old babies on a bus a year ago and never saw them again, it literally pains me. I am choked up even writing the words now. But within seconds of chatting with Roig-DeBellis, all I felt was inspired. Not just because of what she did that day, but what she did when she went back to work.

"If I just moved forward and continued to do my job as I had [before the shooting], then I wouldn't be recognizing what was lost," she says. "I wanted to find a way to heal and a way for my students to heal and to live my life with purpose." Roig-Debellis, who considers being a first grade teacher her dream job, found that purpose after seeing how the world responded to the tragedy. The community of Newtown was showered with gifts, love and support (an entire warehouse was devoted to the teddy bears and books that arrived daily in the weeks following the shooting), a kindness that sparked an idea: "I stepped back and realized that while it was so great that my kids were getting, I really needed to show them that you have to give back," she says. "If I didn't teach them that then I was really missing the mark as their teacher."

In January Roig-Debellis launched Classes4Classes, a non-profit organization that helps K-8 classes sponsor educational gifts (iPads, field trips, art supplies) for other K-8 classes. There is no financial obligation for the students or schools (the funding for the projects comes from outside donors, though classes can certainly donate as well) and teachers can make it as big a commitment as they see fit. "As a teacher, I understand that there is so little time in the day for extras," says Roig-Debellis. "But we are responsible for teaching children to care and to be compassionate and C4C provides that opportunity." It's a tool meant to make it easier to teach a social curriculum. Creating a profile takes less than 10 minutes and teachers can use the site as much or as little as they like. In addition to the giving component, C4C has tons of ideas for building compassion and empathy into the daily curriculum (kindness journals, "caught being kind" jars, book suggestions). And to ensure students pay it forward, a class can only redeem their gift once they've chosen a classroom they can then give to. Awesome, right?

The program began with 28 classrooms and recently rolled out nationally with the backing of the Department of Education and many high-profile supporters (President Clinton and Laura Bush are among them). I've spent lots of time on the C4C website and am so impressed. In the current education culture where all we seem to hear about is the debate over Common Core and the pressure to raise test scores and bullying, it's so nice to have a resource like this that is all about teaching kids to be kind. And to think that someday this might be part of the national curriculum (Roig-Debellis hopes to see C4C in every classroom and is working tirelessly to make that happen) is very encouraging. I'm definitely going to be pitching a C4C project to my son's teacher after the New Year and I urge you to do the same. There's a letter you can print out that explains what the organization is all about and the simple steps for getting a class involved. In the meantime, there are a bunch of great ideas for parents to use at home that you can get started with right now.

Roig-Debellis is currently taking a leave of absence from teaching to focus on C4C, but will return to Sandy Hook (the school is in a new building) and her first love in July. This week has been tough on her, but she says it's really no different than most days. "Every day is the anniversary," she says. "It's the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing on my mind before bed. I'm constantly aware of the fact that it could have been me taken that day and that I need to live my life in a positive way, one that honors the 26 angels we lost and doesn't let the tragedy define me or my students," she says. "C4C has been my healing." And while she's still haunted by nightmares and what-ifs, her mission to move forward prevails: "We can choose anger, hate and fear or we can choose love, kindness and hope. Which is the better choice to make?"