Jeff Truesdell and Jeff Vespa
March 08, 2018 10:00 AM

On Feb. 14, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School lost 17 victims to a tragic mass shooting.

In the days and weeks afterward, as students and families grieved and returned to class, many of the teens who attend the Parkland, Florida, high school have been speaking out about their experiences and demanding there be changes in gun safety legislation so that something like this can never happen again.

As part of a social media initiative called #whatif, photojournalist Jeff Vespa captured students’ heart-wrenching tales of survival — and their determination to create a future free of gun violence.

Their powerful words and portraits are featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Maddie Gaffney, a 17-year-old junior, spoke on the phone after the shooting with her mom, who had texted to make sure she was okay.

But when Gaffney finally reached home, her mother was not there, she recalls in the video above. Instead, she was out searching with another mother who had not heard from her own child.

Watch more Voices of Parkland Survivors on, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite mobile or connected TV device. 

The two parents were “looking at hospitals, trying to find him,” Gaffney says of their close family friend, 15-year-old freshman Luke Hoyer.

“About 1:30 we found out that he was killed,” she says. “He was shot in the back and they think he died quickly, so at least he didn’t have to suffer.”

Of Hoyer’s mom, Gaffney says, “I can’t even explain to you the feeling of seeing a mother that you know so well that lost her baby. I can’t even explain.”

“It’s just like she’s lifeless. There’s nothing left in her,” she says. “Something needs to be done about this. Something needs to change.”

The teens have planned the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on March 24 to demand changes in gun legislation and already the event has expanded to include more than 400 related demonstrations in cities across the globe.

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