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Survivors Empowered visit Buffalo to spread mission of hope, healing, action

A couple that draws on their own painful experience with gun violence spent several days in the Queen City trying to help others after the mass shooting at Tops.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Sandy and Lonnie Phillips know more than most about the pain and shock of suddenly losing a loved one in a mass shooting.

"I was so distraught I didn't want to take that next breath. ... I didn't want to wake up the next day," Sandy recalled, after the couple's 24-year-old daughter was killed in the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting 10 years ago.

In the decade since the group they founded, Survivors Empowered has grown in national scope and now has developed a Survivors Tool Kit.

"It has all the things about being a survivor of gun violence that you need to know especially with mass shootings," said Sandy, who noted it includes information on dealing with the media, handling social media posts that may be unkind, and to grief, and even one's own social circle.

Dealing with that for which you cannot prepare

"We try to prepare them for the fact that they're going to lose friends and loved ones over this, because you are now a new person, and they are not going to know what to do with you," Sandy said.

The Phillips came to Buffalo after the mass shooting that killed 10 people and injured three others at the Tops Friendly markets on Jefferson Avenue, in hopes of assisting those most directly effected by it.

"They'll have a whole army around them of other survivors that will be there for them from this day forward," said Sandy, in describing Survivors Empowered.

But they were also here for the many in the community who may not have lost a loved one in the massacre, but perhaps know someone who did and may be trying to help them, while not knowing just what to do or say.

"There are some things you don't want to say," Lonnie said. "Don't ask one of them, what does it feel like? First of all, they don't know themselves. They can't tell you, and you couldn't understand it, even if they could tell you."

Added Sandy: "The best thing to tell them is that they are going to live through this even though they don't want to. And then you listen."

The Phillips travel the country attending gun violence forums, commemorations of prior mass shootings, and other events.

But then they make what they call "unscheduled" stops, at mass shootings as they occur.

It's what brought them to Buffalo this past week, and what will take them now to Texas, to the small town where the latest mass shooting occurred not far from where they live in San Antonio. 

Another type of family

"This will be our 20th when we get to Uvalde," said Lonnie, referring to the number of mass shooting sites the pair has visited.

Asked if their work, including heading to the scenes of mass shootings, is part of their own therapy for overcoming the grief of the loss of their daughter, Sandy replied, "Oh yes, of course. We get a lot from it when we can help other people."

It's where they meet others who suddenly find themselves in shoes similar to those that the Phillips' have been walking in for a decade.

"We're here to hold hands and broken hearts and along the road we start rebuilding them," Sandy said. "It's a club that nobody wants to belong to but once you're a part of it, you can't resign. So, you might as well become friends with one another and become another type of family."

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