Susan Bro is still reeling from the tragic events of Aug. 12, when her 32-year-old daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed by a driver who rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters demonstrating against a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“The day Heather was killed, I couldn’t even remember her middle name when they asked me,” the former fourth-grade teacher — who will present at the VMAs on Sunday — tells PEOPLE. “I was in fog mode.”
In the days that followed, Bro, 60, began planning a funeral for her daughter — who’d been in Charlottesville to protest neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan members and other white supremacists who had gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally — and learned of a GoFundMe page that had been set up by a grade-school friend of Heyer.
“My husband and I are of very modest means and Heather’s father is of equally modest means and Heather too, so we didn’t have a lot of money for funeral expenses,” says Bro, who was shocked to learn of the page’s existence. “At first it was $20,000, which I thought was kind of ridiculously large. But I didn’t know anything about funerals.
“I was actively working on planning her funeral, and with press coming in and out and didn’t really pay much attention to the page. Then someone said, ‘Go take a look at it.’ And it was at $50,000. I said, ‘Good heavens. What in the world?’ But I didn’t have time to deal with it then because life was so consumed by planning this funeral, which was getting bigger and bigger by the moment as the public got involved. Then my stepdaughter called me up and said, ‘You need to go look at the page.’ And I did and it was over $220,000. I said, ‘Oh my God. We’ve got to stop this.’ “
Heyer contacted the woman who’d launched the fundraiser campaign and had her shut the GoFundMe page down. But people still reached out trying to help.
“People were calling us and writing us on a regular basis wanting to donate more money even though we’d closed the fund,” says Bro.
At first Bro thought to use the excess money to help the 19 people who were injured but survived the incident. But when she realized there were already GoFundMe pages set up for them, she was at a loss as to what to do with the funds.
“We said, ‘Well, what are we going to do with this money? It’s obviously not for us,’ ” says Bro.
Heyer’s boss, who is a family friend, spoke to a few people and soon Bro and the group had a plan: start the Heather Heyer Foundation, which will provide scholarships to provide financial assistance to individuals passionate about positive social change. (The foundation is a registered non-profit. Scholarships will be awarded to those seeking a degree or certification in, but not limited to, law, paralegal studies, social work, social justice, and education.)
“Doing the right thing” is something Bro says she instilled in Heyer at a young age.
“She’d get so frustrated with me,” Bro says of her daughter. “She’d want to throw a gum wrapper out the window as a kid and I’d say, ‘No. We don’t do that.’ She’d be like, ‘Mom, it’s okay.’ I’d say, ‘No. We don’t do that. I don’t care what other people do. If we know it’s wrong, we don’t do it.’ That’s just how I was brought up. It’s basic values, in my mind. She took it even further than I could have imagined. She carried it on to her fellow man, and I’m so proud of her for that.”
But Bro admits her daughter would have mixed feelings about having a foundation named after her.
“I know that Heather was just mortified of attention,” says Bro. “She was all about private, one-on-one conversations or with small groups, family and friends. But at the same time, I know that she would be very proud that her voice is being carried around the world for social justice. She was so passionate about that.”
In the two weeks since her daughter’s death, Bro has quit her job as a bookkeeper and secretary and devoted her attention to the foundation.
“My husband is on disability, so we had a discussion about if we could make it financially if I quit. I think we’ll take just a small chunk of her money and pay off one loan and then we can live pretty modestly,” says Bro. “We’re not big into material possessions anyway so I feel comfortable then that I can devote my energy and time to the foundation.”
Bro says she’s been overwhelmed by the response to her daughter’s passion for social justice and was shocked when MTV asked her to attend the VMAs on Sunday to present the Best Fight Against the System award on the telecast, which airs live at 8 p.m. ET. (“The addition of the Best Fight Against the System category was added to the 2017 MTV VMAs to continue reflecting the audience’s passion and activism around social justice issues such as environmental justice, immigration, LGBTQ equality, and racial justice,” says a spokesperson for the network.)
“When they first asked me I hadn’t realized how far-reaching Heather’s message had been,” Bro says. “I was a bit skeptical. ‘What do you want a 60 year old woman on your show for?’ I didn’t realize how many people were paying attention. But now I’ve realized this is bigger than Heather, this is bigger than me. This is something that touches people everywhere, the idea that you can stand up and be counted, that you have it within you to be that hero, so I feel like I have an obligation to share that.”
She says the pain of the loss of her daughter is still strong, but having something else to focus her attention on has been a welcome distraction.
“I cried most of the way from Charlottesville to Atlanta,” she says of the first leg of her trip to Los Angeles for the VMAs. “Just very quietly, tears rolling down. There was nothing to distract me. But when I’m focused on the foundation, then I’m kind of in a business mode and that gets me through because not only am I fulfilling her vision, I’m distracted from the grief.”
“I want to make her death count,” says Bro. “We’re not going to waste this. I would never give up my child willingly. If she had to die, at least we’re going to serve a purpose with it.”
For more information about the Heather Heyer Foundation, visit heatherheyerfoundation.com.