Powerful New PSA Spotlights Plight of School Shooting Survivors Who Lost Their 'Teenage Dream'

Sandy Hook Promise, an organization founded by parents who lost their children to gun violence, has a new PSA showing the realities of life after a school shooting in hopes of preventing the next one

The video opens with Samantha Fuentes gazing somberly at her reflection in her bathroom mirror.

"You think I'm pretty without makeup on," the teen says plaintively as she utters the first line of Katy Perry's hit song "Teenage Dream."

With the afternoon sun dappling the walls of his family's home, Nick Walczak, 27, is shown next, somberly stating the song's second line: "You think I'm funny when I tell the punchline wrong."

Shortly after, Mia Page-Tretta, 17, sings her line as she begins to play a slow, subdued rendition of "Teenage Dream" on the piano.

Then the message starts to unfold. As the young people continue to sing, the camera pans to a mournful-looking family sitting in bed holding a picture of a teenage boy and a loving mother comforting her son on his bedroom floor.

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Everything then goes black and the words, "The teenage dream is not what it used to be," flash across the screen.

Thus begins the latest installment of Sandy Hook Promise's award-winning series of PSAs to try to shed light on the dark realities of life after a school shooting.

The teens and young adults in the video, it turns out, are survivors of some of the worst school shootings in the nation's history, who have experienced varying degrees of physical and mental trauma, including PTSD.

Aalayah Eastmond, 20, who is in the beginning of the video displaying a picture of her "Valentine" on her phone, "Hid under the body of her dead friend," the screen reads. "Parkland 2018."

As the name Nick Walczak appears on the screen, the camera shot widens, showing him sitting in a wheelchair. "Shot 3 times. Paralyzed by a bullet in his spine. Chardon, Ohio 2012."

Created and produced by Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit that focuses on gun violence prevention, and BBDO New York, the video ends with the message, "School shootings are preventable when you know the signs. Learn more at SandyHookPromise.org."

Focusing on the Survivors

Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden founded Sandy Hook Promise in 2013, in the harrowing months after a gunman stormed Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and fatally shot 20 children and six staff members before turning the gun on himself.

Hockley's son, Dylan, 6, and Barden's son, Daniel, 7, both first graders, were killed that day.

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"At Sandy Hook Promise, we've been doing PSAs for a number of years, and in the past, we've always focused on what are the warning signs," says Hockley, who recently sat down with Jeremy Parsons of PEOPLE (the TV Show!) about the PSA and the message she hopes it delivers. (The segment airs Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET.)

"This time we decided to focus on the survivors," she says. "Those people that have experienced the school shootings and lived to tell the horrific tale through their strength and their fortitude, but in the effort to prevent it from others.

"The point of this PSA is to motivate people, to not be us, to take action, to learn the signs and prevent a tragedy before it happens."

The title and lyrics from Perry's hit song were a powerful way to help get Sandy Hook Promise's message across, she says.

"It gives a whole different meaning to the song and really helps evoke emotion in parents, I think, about the dissolution of the teenage dream and what we need to do to bring it back," she says.

Launching Monday, the message in the PSA comes at a crucial time. Though much of the nation was homebound during the pandemic, 2020 was the most violent year on record with 611 mass shootings, according to a USA Today analysis of Gun Violence Archive statistics from 2020.

The analysis shows that mass shootings increased by 47 percent during one of the most challenging years in the nation's history.

Sandy Hook Promise's founders and the young adults who took part in the PSA hope the campaign helps to turn this trend around.

Aalayah Eastmond
Sandy Hook Promise

Aalayah Eastmond, 20, lost her close friend Nicholas Dworet, whose parents and brother are seen holding his picture on their bed in the video.

"You can see in the PSA I hold my phone up and I'm holding a picture of Nicholas Dworet, who saved my life in my school shooting," Eastmond tells Parsons. "As I'm holding his picture and listening to the lyrics, recognizing that, yes, all of our teenage dreams have been ripped away from us, but also the victims of our schools, their teenage dream was taken away from them."

As captain of the high school swim team, Dworet had aspirations of going to the Olympics, she says. Before he died, he'd just got a scholarship to swim at college.

"His teenage dream was ripped away from him in the safest place, which is school, where you're supposed to learn," she says. "It was definitely really hard to sit with all of those emotions, but it's very important to be a part of projects like this, that center (on) victims, because it's an issue that is ongoing, that's impacting young people across the country.

"We know as schools open up soon, we're unfortunately going to see more school shootings. We definitely need to have this uncomfortable conversation in order to create change."

Nick Walczak
Sandy Hook Promise

Walczak lost the use of his legs when he was shot in the 2012 Chardon High School shooting in Ohio.

"It was Monday morning," he told Parsons. "We're sitting in the cafeteria waiting for our classes to start, and the shooter started shooting at us from one table away.

"I tried to run out of the cafeteria and I got shot three times, and then I got up and I started running down this really long hallway. And that's where he chased me down and he shot his last bullet in my spine, which paralyzed me, and then I was dragged into a teacher's classroom until I was waiting to be picked up by the ambulance. That's about all I remember from it."

Know the Warning Signs

Wanting to prevent further shootings, the aim of the PSA says Hockley, "is helping people understand that gun violence is not inevitable, that it is preventable, that it's not just about politics and policy."

Sandy Hook Promise has tried to make it easy to help people spot the crucial warning signs of potential school shooters with its Know the Signs programs.

They urge people to speak up about any signs they see in someone that could lead to gun violence before another tragedy steals more lives — a message that has been stressed since their first PSA in 2016, which drew 155 million views. (Their last PSA, "Back to School Essentials," won an Emmy Award in 2020.)

Visit www.sandyhookpromise.org/teenagedream to learn the signs of someone at risk of hurting themselves or others.

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