Kaitlin Roig: Sandy Hook Teacher and Hero
She chose to share her experience with others, in the hope that they too can find light in dark moments.
Precipice of Death
It was December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, when Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis witnessed the horrors unfolding at her workplace. She was a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That Friday started out normally with students looking forward to the weekend leading up to the holidays. Suddenly, the sound of rapid-fire gunshots, screams, and pleadings emanated from outside her classroom. She took immediate action.
Without hesitation, she got up, shut and locked the classroom door, and turned off the lights. She knew time was critical and made the decision to hide her fifteen students in the classroom’s tiny bathroom. As the carnage continued, she managed to keep her students calm and quiet. There they stayed in a huddled mass until the SWAT Team arrived and rescued them.
Roig-DeBellis is credited for her act of heroism in saving the lives of her six- and seven-year-old students that day. It wasn’t until later that she learned the full extent of the unspeakable evil that was done, how the killer had shot his way into the school and killed 26 innocent people, including 20 first graders, before taking his own life.
The Recurring Question
The tragic events of that day became a life changing experience for all the survivors, and deeply affected stricken families, a broken community, and mourning nation. For Roig-DeBellis, this sad chapter in American history wasn’t going to quash the rest of her life.
Struggling to process what had happened in the aftermath of the tragedy, the lingering question of “Why?” remained unanswered. But instead of fixating on what could not be answered she changed her thinking. In her book, Choosing Hope: Moving Forward from Life’s Darkest Hours, she reveals two questions that helped her change her focus: “How do I make sure that the deeds of a madman do not prevent us from moving forward to live good and meaningful lives? And how do we gain back the sense of control that he took from us?” These questions led her to concentrate on all the good that could be done and doing her part in collective healing.
Since then, she has traveled the world sharing her story, becoming an inspirational force of encouragement and hope, helping people overcome their darkest hour. “In choosing hope, evil couldn’t define us,” she said at a gathering of Central New York educators. “Decide to focus on hope.”
Wanting to make an impact on school systems, she founded and is the executive director of Classes 4 Classes, a non-profit organization encouraging children to be kind and compassionate toward each other. The program is based on a social networking tool whereby teachers and students in K-8 classrooms are connected nationwide. The program allows classrooms to post projects for other classrooms creating an online curriculum that highlights students’ ability to initiate positive social change. Projects range in fostering care, empathy, and consideration and are completed through active engagement. Donors fund each project and provide a gift that fulfills a need or educational objective.
After its launch, over 3,000 students in 25 states participated in the Classes 4 Classes program. Then, in 2017, the program was expanded to include all 50 states. Roig-DeBellis is often booked to make commencement speeches and as a keynote speaking on the Classes 4 Classes program and overcoming trauma. She delivers her motivational speeches to audiences attended by local school boards, administrators, teachers, and students.
Roig-DeBellis partnered with Armoured One, a school security company that helps prepare schools, colleges, and universities in the event of a shooting or major attack. She helped develop a training series, The Power of Choice, in which she shares the choices she’s made in order to carry on. The series provides the “tools necessary to choose hope after experiencing the darkest moments of your life.”
Recognitions and Accomplishments
Among her many recognitions, Roig-DeBellis was chosen as a Top 50 Teacher by The Global Teacher Prize and in 2016, received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. In 2014, she received the Humanitarian Award from her alma mater, The University of Connecticut (Uconn) and two Honorary Doctorates from Bay Path University and Luzerne College. In 2013, she was honored as one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year. Also that year, L’Oreal Paris named her as one of their L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth. Additionally, her book became a finalist in the memoir category for The Books for a Better Life Award.
She is an Adjunct Professor teaching three education courses, one of which she created, at Bay Path University and serves on the Board of Directors for Uconn NEAG Alumni Association. She also serves as a mentor for Uconn’s Leadership Legacy Experience for extraordinary students.
Roig-DeBellis and Classes 4 Classes have been featured in just about all media including many national publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Fortune, People, and Good Housekeeping. Her weekly educational blog posts are featured in the Huffington Post. She was also featured in a TEDx talk at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2014.
A Purpose Driven Life
As a young child, becoming a school teacher was Roig-Debellis’ dream and she loved the idea of working with children when she became old enough to babysit. She earned her Master of Education with honors in 2006. Her work began as a first grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2007 where she served on multiple committees. A long-distance runner herself, she started a running club for third and fourth graders called Marathon Mondays. After seven years of teaching at Sandy Hook, her life changed dramatically on that fateful day.
But something more powerful than the work of a madman rings from the pages of her book. She writes: “Bad things happen to all of us, things that test us and impact us and change us, but it is not those moments that define who we are. It is how we choose to react to them that does. You can give in and give up or you can decide to live your life with intent and love and compassion for others and for yourself. You can choose hope, even in the darkest hour, and in that choice you will find light. We have that power. I do. You do. Everyone does. That is what I believe.”
We at Throomers applaud the heroic efforts of Roig-Debellis not only on that fateful day, but every day, as she offers people the way forward to hope. To learn more, visit her websites at kaitlinroigdebellis.org and classes4classes.org. Click here for our exclusive Q&A with Kaitlin!