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'Life is never the same, but you do find purpose again': Couple who lost daughter in Aurora mass shooting offers support to Uvalde survivors

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips know the pain of losing a child in a mass shooting. Since losing their daughter in 2012, they have committed to supporting other survivors.

UVALDE, Texas — Grief will linger in Uvalde after 21 lives were taken away during a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. The tight knit community is now on a road towards healing.

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips have been on that same road for the last ten years. They know the grieving and healing process looks different for everyone, but they have also lived through the same unimaginable pain of losing their child in one of the most violent ways. 

Their daughter, 24 year old Jessica Ghawi, was among the 12 killed on July 20, 2012 at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado.

"You can't say that it ever leaves you...you accept it and move (forward)," Lonnie said. "And we still have bits of anger, bits of fury." 

Just five months after losing their daughter, 20 children and six educators had been killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Sandy and Lonnie traveled there to offer support in any way they could. Seeing the devastation and confusion on the faces of families who lost loved ones made them realize their calling was to help people heal after these tragedies. 

When they lost Jessi, they did not know what to do, where to turn for support, or what would come next. 

They turned grief, anger, and heartache into action and founded Survivors Empowered, an organization that responds to mass shootings to support families and communities impacted. 

This free 'From Healing to Action" toolkit offers tips, anecdotes, and coping practices for survivors. Sandy and Lonnie added one of the most important steps in the healing process is getting into trauma therapy. 

"You do find joy again, it’s not the same kind of joy as you would hope you would have, life is never the same, but you do find purpose and you do find joy...a different kind of joy," Sandy said. 

Since losing Jessi, Sandy and Lonnie have responded to a total of 20 mass shootings across the country. The two also spend a lot of time advocating for changes in gun ownership laws and policies.

After spending time in Uvalde, they said the national response this time feels different. 

"When we as a country see the slaughter of our children, there’s a response that’s the maternal response of the country is such as 'enough is enough'," Sandy said.  

As Lonnie pointed to his t-shirt with pictures of three different guns, that read "Anyone, anywhere, anytime only in America," Sandy said "It's not something to be proud of." 

Both Sandy and Lonnie say they are optimistic the aftermath of this mass shooting will lead to legislative change. They emphasized they are not against gun ownership, in fact, they own a gun themselves. However, they are against owning high velocity, assault rifles. 

"We’re not against gun ownership, we’re against owning these types of guns because they’re the favorite of mass shooters, but we’re in favor of regulated guns," she said. 

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