Columbine Anniversary: Shooting Survivors Band Together To Offer Support Over the past 20 years, mass shootings have resulted in communities of survivors. Heather Martin, who was a senior at Columbine High School in 1999, runs a nonprofit that connects them.

After Columbine, An Unlikely Friendship Bound By The Trauma Of Mass Shootings

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tomorrow, April 20, is the 20-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting. Two shooters killed 12 students and one teacher before killing themselves. This mass shooting was one of the first to grab the nation's attention. And since then, Columbine alumni have shared lessons with the survivors of later mass shootings. Colorado Public Radio's Nathaniel Minor has more.

NATHANIEL MINOR, BYLINE: Two decades after the Columbine shooting, Heather Martin's description of the day is succinct. She was in choir class when the gunfire started. She and other students barricaded themselves inside, and hours later, a SWAT team found them. And that's about all she wants to say. But she will describe in detail how difficult it was to move on.

HEATHER MARTIN: You know, I was 18. So what do you do? You move out. I moved out just into an apartment, went to a local community college and struggled a lot, being in an environment where nobody knew what I had been through.

MINOR: Martin dropped out of college. Her life spiraled.

MARTIN: Eventually, I developed an eating disorder, dabbled in some drugs. It was nothing serious, but it was definitely a red flag for me that something - that I was traumatized.

MINOR: Over the years, Martin pieced her life back together. But she still didn't like to talk about Columbine and would even go out of town every April around the anniversary. Finally, at the 10-year mark in 2009, Martin decided she'd avoided it long enough. She had to go back to the school.

MARTIN: I was really scared. I thought that I would be a wreck.

MINOR: But then something unexpected happened when she met up with her high school friends.

MARTIN: We kind of just took a bunch of, like, funny photos in front of, like, the attendance office. Like, oh, look, this is where mom used to call in to ditch.

MINOR: It was less of a memorial and more of a reunion. This visit, it was a turning point for Martin. Seeing all the people around her that day, it made her realize she wasn't alone. After that, Martin went back to college and got her teaching license. She and other Columbine survivors started the Rebels Project - a nonprofit named after their high school mascot.

Martin didn't want survivors of other shootings to go through the same thing that they did. She wanted to help people like Sherrie Lawson - a survivor of the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard shooting in 2013. Lawson was at work early on a Monday morning when the shooting started.

SHERRIE LAWSON: We ended up scaling the 8-to-10-foot brick wall that surrounds the Navy Yard and running up to safety because the shooter was still actively shooting behind us.

MINOR: A dozen people were killed that day. And though Lawson made it home physically safe, it affected her emotionally. At her lowest, Lawson contemplated suicide.

LAWSON: And so one night at 3 a.m., I did this frantic Google search looking for some type of support system because I really just didn't feel supported.

MINOR: She found the Rebels Project, Martin's group. And they started emailing each other. After six months, Lawson came to Colorado for a survivors event.

LAWSON: I remember we went to this Thai restaurant. And then afterwards we sat in Heather's car and listened to Bruce Springsteen for, like, three hours and just talked.

MINOR: Martin says they have a favorite song.

MARTIN: "My City Of Ruins."

LAWSON: Yeah, absolutely.

MARTIN: I have a hard time listening to it without choking up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CITY OF RUINS")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) There's a blood-red circle on the cold, dark ground.

MARTIN: You know, it starts so kind of low and...

LAWSON: Somber.

MARTIN: Yeah, and you feel that. Like, you feel that emotion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CITY OF RUINS")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) The church door's thrown open. I can hear the organ's song.

LAWSON: It is usually the end of that song that gets me. And it's the rise up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CITY OF RUINS")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Come on, rise up. Come on, rise up.

LAWSON: And it reminds me that you've been through this thing, but life still goes on. And you can rise up. And it's not going to be the same, but good things can still happen. And definitely, positive things have happened since.

MINOR: After that trip, Lawson made a big decision. She left D.C. and moved to Colorado, where she felt like she had support.

LAWSON: And I legitimately have a family here. Like, I basically have made myself a member of Heather's family. And (laughter)...

MARTIN: You should see our family Christmas photo. (Laughter).

MINOR: These days, Martin and Lawson spend time traveling across the country together to communities affected by shootings. Martin says it can be draining, but it also forces her to think about her own recovery. And that's top of mind right now, especially with the 20th anniversary tomorrow.

MARTIN: I'm trekking through. I'm, you know, practicing a lot of self-care on my end. But this one's really heavy.

MINOR: Because this one is a big, round number - 20 years. Sherrie Lawson says it's her turn to bear her friend Heather Martin's load. And she knows she'll need help herself in the fall, when the date of the Navy Yard shooting comes around. They've promised to be there for each other. For NPR News, I'm Nathaniel Minor in Denver.

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