Life After Parkland: How 6 Survivors Are Healing in the Aftermath of Horror

It's 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 staffers. But the recent suicides of two survivors make it clear the emotional fallout hasn't ended

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Photo: Jeff Vespa/@portraits
01 of 07

The Survivors

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Jeff Vespa/@portraits

It's been over a year since the February 14, 2018 massacre at Parkland, Fla.’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. To honor the memories of the 17 lives 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.

02 of 07

Kai Koerber, 18

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Jeff Vespa/@portraits

“I don’t think anyone really feels normal after something like this,” says Kai Koerber, 18.

A senior who will be heading to the University of California at Berkeley this fall, Koerber launched his own nonprofit called Societal Reform Corp in the aftermath of the massacre at school. He wanted to create a program that helps address the mental health issues commonly at play behind the scenes of gun violence.

“We need to put mental health on equal standing with gun control,” Koerber explains. SRC advocates for the development of mental health initiatives in public schools, including non-traditional healing methods such as painting, mindfulness and yoga.

03 of 07

Emily Burke, 16

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Jeff Vespa/@portraits

After losing her best friend and soccer teammate, Alyssa Alhadeff, in last year’s shooting, Emily Burke continues to struggle with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. She tells PEOPLE that some days are harder than others -- and she knows she’s not alone. “Obviously I think most people have anxiety at the school. Depression doesn’t stay with you during the school day, it follows you home,” Burke says.

Burke also deals with flashbacks and other fears tied to the massacre — for instance, a fear of loud, unexpected noises.

“We have to deal with the same disease as soldiers,” she says, referring to the PTSD she and so many of her classmates continue to contend with. “We’re just kids who went to school.”

04 of 07

Dylan Kraemer, 18

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Jeff Vespa/@portraits

After watching six classmates die in the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, Dylan Kraemer, 18, has had to slowly fight his way toward normalcy. It’s an ongoing struggle for the current senior, who transferred to another school this year to help him move past some of the painful memories.

“In the mornings, I feel good that another day has started. Once it gets toward nighttime and I’m in my room alone, that’s when it feels dark and depressing,” Kraemer, who continues to see a therapist for PTSD, tells PEOPLE.

“I try to normalize it as much as possible, but it’s never going to be the same as the life I used to have,” he says.

05 of 07

Eden Hebron, 16

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Jeff Vespa/@portraits

During the massacre, Eden Hebron hid under a table and watched in horror as her friends were murdered in front of her.

Therapy has enabled her to process her memories of those moments, which don’t dominate her thoughts as much as they used to. Still, she believes that for other survivors, therapy carries a stigma, which prevents them from getting the help they need.

In response, Hebron, who aspires to a career in technology, has developed an app that matches a person’s symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression with ways to address those problems. She hopes the app will help students all across the country.

06 of 07

Carlos Rodriguez, 18

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Jeff Vespa/@portraits

When Carlos Rodriguez immigrated to the United States from Venezuela at age 8, he felt safe: Gone were the sleepless nights when he feared someone would rob his home, kidnap his sisters or murder his family.

That all changed last Feb. 14, when a gunman opened fire and killed 17 people at his Parkland, Florida, school.

Soon after the massacre, the 18-year-old created Stories Untold, a video-based platform on Twitter that enables students of color to share experiences of being victimized by gun violence. In doing so, Rodriguez hopes to empower those who feel underrepresented in media coverage.

07 of 07

Darian Williams, 17

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Jeff Vespa/@portraits

After the massacre, Parkland survivor Darian Williams found himself evading his grief by resorting to humor.

“I covered up with jokes because I didn’t understand how to process this stuff,” the affable 17-year-old junior tells PEOPLE.

Then came the funerals, and the reality hit home. After three, he stopped going to them because the pain was so overwhelming.

Ultimately, he found an emotional anchor in his religious faith. Williams says prayer enables him to sit with his emotions and process them in a healthy way. “It’s a form of therapy," he says.

Updated by Elaine Aradillas
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