PARKLAND, Fla. On Feb. 14, 2018, Joaquin Oliver, 17, brought flowers to school for his girlfriend. His father had driven him to buy them the night before, and in the morning, Joaquin awoke, made sure to shower (it was Valentines Day, as he pointed out to his parents), then grabbed his backpack, the flowers and a card. His father drove him to school, and as soon as Joaquin had a chance, he gave them to his girlfriend.
Around 2 p.m. that afternoon, a gunman walked into Joaquins high school here with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and killed 17 students and teachers.
Joaquin was one of them.
This has been the hardest year for Manuel and Patricia Oliver, Joaquins parents. Some people prefer not to talk about the massacre. But Manuel and Patricia choose otherwise.
We recently sat on the same couch where, a year ago, they recalled their sons last moments. Pictures of Guac, as Joaquin was known, are everywhere. Joaquins room is just as he left it. His presence is undeniable.
The Olivers mourning is far from over. When a parent loses a child, especially under such violent circumstances, I suspect it never ends. We have found a new reason to be here, Manuel told me. When you are a parent, everything you do is for your children. We still do everything for our son, but our son is gone.
Patricia tells me that it took her a long time to get used to the void that Joaquins death left behind. But a few months later her mission became clear. I felt we had to do something, she told me. Joaquins death could not be in vain.
Manuel agreed. Its such a hard experience; you have to come to terms with it day after day. I cant stop thinking about Joaquin, he said. But we also realized that we had to be part of the solution. We cant be content with only remembering Joaquin and turning the page. We must do something to make sure this wont happen again to another child, he said.
How many people will die from firearms today in the United States? I asked Manuel. One hundred, he answered. And the same tomorrow. And yesterday too. Out of those 100, 15 are children, he added.
That all adds up to around 40,000 deaths every year, according to government statistics. Unfortunately, there is no political will to change that. In the United States we witness one slaughter after another, yet members of the Senate and House of Representatives in Washington, citing the Second Amendment, do not dare try to restrict the use of firearms.
These days the Olivers fight against the strong influence of the National Rifle Association in U.S. politics. As a result of the NRAs power, military-style weapons can be purchased with astonishing ease in this country. In fact, its easier to buy weapons than some nonprescribed medicines.
But Manuel and Patricia Oliver wont give up. In fact, they have only just started their fight. They have created a foundation, changetheref.org, and have spent the year traveling the country, campaigning for ways to reduce deaths from firearms and gathering supporters to their cause. Recently they visited South Africa, where they met with the equally optimistic Archbishop Desmond Tutu and discussed additional ways to spread their message.
Manuel Oliver, an artist and marketing expert, created a life-size 3D-printed statue of Joaquin that he exhibits at public events and takes to congressional offices. He also attracted the ire of the Trump administration by painting a mural on a fence on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, with the words: On the other side they also kill our children.
The Olivers like the students who survived the slaughter in Parkland, the Dreamers, or Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have adopted a head-on, fearless, confrontational communications strategy. But Patricia Oliver points out that they use their hearts more than any other tool.
In the end, the Olivers do this so you and I wont suffer a similar tragedy. We ought to be dramatic about the message, Manuel Oliver said. Because this drama is real. We have a duty to show just how harsh the reality of losing a child is, because it can happen to anyone.
You could call it a warning, he said. My sole regret is not having done this before Feb. 14, 2018.