“I don’t think anyone really feels normal after something like this,” Kai Koerber tells PEOPLE
It has been more than a year since the February 14, 2018 mass shooting at Parkland, Fla.’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School claimed the lives of 17 students and staff members. But the emotional fallout hasn’t ended.
Recently, two students — 16-year-old Parkland sophomore Calvin Desir and 2018 graduate Sydney Aiello, 19 — have died by suicide, as did Jeremy Richman, whose 6-year-old daughter Avielle was among the 26 people murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
To honor the memories of those lost and help raise awareness of the mental health issues that can linger after gun violence, PEOPLE spoke with six Parkland students about their experiences then and now.
Kai Koerber, 18, was on lockdown in Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ Music Hall when the shooting broke out — and his life changed forever. “We were like, ‘Yeah, right. It’s not gonna happen in the safest community in the country,'” he remembers to PEOPLE.
But it did. “I don’t think anyone really feels normal after something like this,” he admits. These days, Koerber, a senior who will be heading to the University of California at Berkeley in the fall, is trying to use the momentum from last year’s tragedy to shine a light on the mental health issues that are commonly behind the scenes of gun violence. “The person who walks into a school full of children and commits a mass act of murder, they’re not mentally well,” he says.
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With the aim of helping not just those who have been touched by trauma — like his peers at Douglas — but also those who might feel driven toward violence themselves, Koerber formed a nonprofit called Societal Reform Corp. “We need to put mental health on equal standing with gun control,” he explains to PEOPLE. His group advocates for the development of mental health initiatives in public schools, including non-traditional healing tools such as yoga, mindfulness, and painting.
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His focus on more holistic interventions comes naturally to him. In fact, it’s a family thing. “I grew up in a very mindful family,” he says — one that used tools like meditation and goal-setting as strategies to cope with pain, negativity and loss. He learned to “take my negative circumstances and … use those lessons and put that in a different direction so I could keep moving forward.”
With the help of his nonprofit, he hopes others will be able to do the same.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.