Columbine Survivor Kathy Carlston Launches Resource To Help Victims Of Mass Shootings And Other Trauma

Sign
The sign at Columbine High School. Gary Caskey/Reuters

Like many survivors of the Columbine High School massacre, Kathy Carlston never really left the experience behind. But she hasn’t let it interfere with her life either.

Now a visual effects artist who has worked on such big-budget tentpoles as “The Avengers” and “Oz the Great and Powerful,” the San Francisco resident has stayed busy in the years since living through the deadliest high school shooting in American history.

But in July last year, when James Holmes opened fire in a crowded movie theater in her home state of Colorado, killing 12 people and injuring 58, Carlston felt compelled to do something to help the victims of a tragedy that felt all too familiar.

“I was deeply, deeply affected,” she said in a phone interview. “My heart just went out to them.”

Soon after the incident, though, life got in the way, as it often does, and Carlston got caught up with various professional projects. That is, until five months later, when Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.  

“That’s when I knew I needed to do something,” Carlston said.

And so began Resilient Hope, an online resource launched on Friday by Carlston and other Columbine alumni. Inspired by the It Gets Better Project, which utilizes user-created videos and blogs to communicate to LGBT youth that dark times don’t last forever, Resilient Hope aims to offer messages of encouragement to victims of serious trauma. The group is currently amassing a library of first-person videos on topics ranging from mass shootings and chronic illness to homelessness and human trafficking.

Carlston said she believes the core message of Its Gets Better is universal to the human experience of adversity: No matter how bad it gets, people need to know that there are better days ahead. She said it’s a message she could have used in 1999, when, after living through the Columbine massacre, she suffered from survivor’s guilt for years.

A freshman at the time of the shooting, Carlston recalls being in the school cafeteria when she was told there was a shooter outside. She and the other students ran for cover into a science classroom -- the same room where a wounded teacher would bleed to death. She said they were trapped in the room for two or three hours until a SWAT team finally arrived. Carlston’s older sister, Liz, also a Columbine survivor, published a book about the experience in 2004.

Resilient Hope is planning to apply for nonprofit status. The group is currently seeking investors and camera crews to help people create videos and tell their stories of trauma. Carlston may also consider crowdfunding to help with costs.

In the meantime, the idea has already generated significant interest on Reddit, where Carlston on Sunday took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) in which she fielded questions about the project and its aims. The thread has more than 1,300 comments. Carlston said she was “overwhelmed” by the response and hopes it’s a sign that the project may ultimately grow into a global resource for anyone suffering from trauma, whatever the source.

“Pain is pain,” she said. “Whether you’re a victim of a shooting or a soldier coming home from war, suffering from PTSD, recovery is a long road.”

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