On July 6, Erica (Lafferty) Smegielski was married across from Great Sacandaga Lake in New York as more than 150 friends and family members looked on.
She glistened in the flowing white dress she and her mother had chosen months prior. She greeted each guest personally with a smile and a warm embrace. And she danced the night away overlooking a picturesque lake in the backyard her mom planned to call home for the remainder of her educational career and into retirement.
Her mother had helped with all of the wedding arrangements—from the location to the decor, even down to the guy, Christopher Smegielski, whom her mother hand-picked as her "soul mate" from the time they were 12-year-old schoolmates in Naugatuck, Conn. Her mother had always hoped they'd find each other as adults, and by happenstance or maybe fate, they did. Now they were about to tie the knot in her mother's backyard.
The pomp and circumstance surrounding the summertime nuptials was a dream come true for Erica after the nightmare she'd endured just months prior. And the day would have been perfect, had it not been for the heart-wrenching sight of that lonely, empty chair sitting near the dance floor.
That chair was reserved for her mom, Dawn (Lafferty) Hochsprung, the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The 47-year-old Hochsprung was one of the first people killed when a lone gunman committed one of the worst school shootings in American history, taking the lives of 20 children and six educators shortly after killing his mother in their home on Dec. 14, 2012. He shot and killed himself as police closed in on him, according to the police report released last month.
On that horrific night one year ago, Smegielski sat with friends and family wondering whether she could move on—with the painful days that would surely follow, with the wedding planning ... with any of it. For Smegielski's entire life, her mother had not only been a single parent and sole provider, she'd been a friend and a mentor. With her gone, Smegielski wasn't sure she'd have the courage or the willpower to live the life her mom had always dreamed for her and her sister, Tina.
Yet after a roller coaster year that included some of the most painful memories anyone could imagine, Smegeilski has proven that strength is born from heartbreak.
In a year, she has gone from someone who only voted when her mother reminded her, to someone who goes on national news shows and walks the halls of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., talking about the need for better gun control policies and mental health programs for those in need. She has helped put a face on the nationwide gun control debate. She has forced politicians and much of the general public to think critically about ways to make our schools and our society safer places to learn and live.
"I know if the roles were reversed and I was killed in the school that day, that my mom would do everything she could do to prevent things like that from happening to other moms," Smegielski said.
After the shooting, Smegielski began volunteering with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group of U.S. mayors campaigning for gun control that was founded and is largely funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She went around the country talking about the Machin-Toomey bill that would have expanded background checks to gun buyers.
Eventually, she became a paid employee for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a position she still holds. She travels with others who have been impacted by gun violence to various places around the country, talking about what she feels is a need for more stringent gun control measures, particularly expanded background checks.
In April, Smegielski made national news when she attended a Town Hall-style meeting in New Hampshire to publicly question Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, for her vote against Machin-Toomey. Ayotte was the only East Coast senator north of Virginia to vote against the bill, and some polls in her state suggest a large majority of her constituents supported the bill.
Smegielski, a woman who never paid much attention to politics or national news, now finds herself as a regular guest on national news talk shows. She has regular conversations with household names like Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan, who recently donated $3,000 to a fundraiser for Sandy Hook victims.
She has also found herself in places most wouldn't expect her to be. Recently, she attended the National Rifle Association's annual conference. She interacted with people from all over the country, and said she was overwhelmed by how nice and compassionate most of them were.
"I met some of the coolest guys ever," she said. "There are three or four who I still talk to on an almost daily basis on Facebook. I don't think there is a great divide over people who want gun control and people who don't want gun control. I don't think there are two sides to humanity; I feel like it's a pretty common sense thing."
"...My overall goal is to save lives; I think pretty much everyone in the world believes that is a good idea."
Smegielski said she's learned that most people are inherently good in nature. Her family has received correspondence from all over the world during the past year, and people have shown the best side of themselves, she said.
However, there are radicals on all sides, and many times, they speak loudest.
Some have sent death threats to Smegielski and others who speak out about gun control. Others have expressed elaborate conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook, believing it was a hoax the government invented to have leverage to take guns away from citizens.
"People who say it was a hoax, I just say to them, 'I wish it was,'" Smegielski said. "If it was a hoax, then prove it to me: bring my mom back. As soon as I say that, they just go away because nobody can bring her back. She was murdered."
And because of that, Smegielski spends every waking moment trying to honor her mother's memory. With most decisions, she asks: "What would Dawn do?" And she spreads messages of hope that her mother used to recite on a regular basis:
- "I can. We can. You can. Because we can."
- "Be nice to each other; it's all that really matters."
"Her voice was taken away from her, so I need to speak for her," Smegielski said. "Any place where I can make any kind of difference for even one person, that is my goal. I just have this undying desire to make sure that nobody else has to feel like I felt on Dec. 14 and every single second of every day since."
While she knows the pain and memories are almost unbearable, what she doesn't know, and what nobody does, is why this happened. While Smegielski has asked herself why many times, she eventually had to stop: she will never have the answer.
"There are so many things I'm always going to wonder," she said. "But if I look for answers and try to create scenarios in my head, I know I'm going to drive myself crazy. I know I'm never going to know why. I won't have any concrete answers as to why I don't have my mom, why Carlee (Soto) doesn't have her sister, why Scarlett (Lewis) doesn't have her kid."The why will drive you crazy," she said. "But the adapting and accepting, I think, is something I can do. I think. We'll see."