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.
As the horrific violence became apparent, senior Maia Hebron thought immediately of her sister, Eden, elsewhere on the campus, “because I had just turned 18, but I had a 14-year-old sister who was just starting her high school experience,” she says in the video above.
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“Finally my mom calls me and said parents of children in Eden’s class just said that she’s okay. I told my mom, ‘Forget about me. I’m fine. I’m safe. Take care of my sister.'”
“[That] we’re not allowed to drink alcohol, we’re not allowed to get a lottery ticket at 18, but you can buy a rifle is unreal to me,” she says. “We need to make something change, or else this is going to keep happening, which it has been for years.”
“Every day I’m going to wake up and think about my classmates … that aren’t allowed to have the experiences that I guess I have now. Part of me feels guilty. Part of me feels thankful. Part of me feels like it’s still unreal that I’m going to have to keep on living.”
“I know that my neighbors, that people in my community, don’t have a life anymore, because of one kid, because of a gun.”
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.