Sandy and Lonnie Phillips are members of a club that no one wants to join. In 2012, their 24-year-old daughter Jessi was killed when a gunman opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Since then, the couple has traveled in their RV to mass shootings across America to support parents and survivors. Two weeks ago, they were in Uvalde, Texas—the 20th mass shooting they’ve visited since their daughter died.
I first heard about the Phillips’ on an episode of This American Life. The episode originally aired in 2018, but the podcast producers re-aired it last week, in part to prove just how little has changed in this country. Four years later and the pattern is identical: Mass shooting, outpouring of grief, condolences from leaders and politicians, public outrage, legislation that goes nowhere. Repeat. So where do we go from here? What happens next?
The Phillips’ have some ideas, but they’re not overly concerned with politics; their job is to show up. They make no money from these visits; they live simply, in a 245-square-foot trailer and get by with some savings and Social Security. They arrive ready to offer comfort, support and practical advice to parents confronting the unthinkable. Sandy says they’re always nervous, and she likens it to walking into a funeral full of strangers. Yet they have no problem connecting with parents, which is remarkable considering no one is ever there to greet them or make introductions. Sandy freely distributes her contact information and urges parents to call anytime. Back at home in New York, she spends most days fielding texts and calls from parents and survivors. She and Lonnie even started an organization called Survivors Empowered to help parents of mass shooting victims navigate their grief and handle practical concerns like medical bills, fundraising scams, conspiracy theorists and media requests.
The couple admits that their mission has been hard for their family and friends to understand; some have expressed concern that it’s become an unhealthy obsession. The couple insists that while the pain of losing their daughter will never go away, having a sense of purpose helps.
Amid all the news and opinion pieces, it’s this podcast that stays with me. It’s been a decade since the Phillips’ daughter was killed and they’re busier than ever. What does that say about the state of our country right now? I keep thinking about the parents of the Uvalde victims and the beautiful children they can no longer cradle in their arms and the unbearable agony that darkens their days. Because while we go back to our jobs and vacations and cozy homes and bills and pool parties and grocery runs and sports games and dinner tables, they go back to an emptiness they can never escape.