As the world watched the tragedy unfold late last year in Newtown, Conn., Bob and Michele Gay, Maryland natives, lived through what Michele would later refer to as called a "long, difficult, numb sort of day."
Their 7-year-old daughter, Josephine "Joey" Gay, was one of 20 children killed in the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
"She was social and she was affectionate — in addition to being autistic and apraxic," Bob Gay said. "She was a wonderful little girl, and she had this goodness and energy that people wanted to be a part of."
That energy, which drew people toward Joey during her seven years, is the motivation behind Joey's Purple Ball, a gala fundraiser to be held at Calvert Hall College High School on June 8 in honor of Joey's life.
"We want to make some good out of this," Bob, a Calvert Hall graduate and Towson native, said. "Right after this, I thought, 'I cannot let this be the footnote on Josephine's life.' "
Since that unforgettable day, family and friends of Bob and Michele, a Columbia native and graduate of Centennial High, have come together to organize a tribute fitting to a young girl some of them never even met.
"It pretty much represents her," Michele said. "She's all about joy and happiness, love and celebration, and giving to other people, so I think the Purple Ball really sums those things up very nicely."
'We just sort of knew'
When the mass shooting took place, the Gays were just weeks away from leaving Newtown for the Boston area, where Bob had taken a new job with the Concord, Mass.-based higher education consulting firm, Maguire Associates. At that time, Bob was staying at a bed and breakfast during the week and commuting home to his family Friday evenings.
On the morning of Dec. 14, Michele took Joey to school separately from her two older sisters to give Joey a little extra time, and Joey "bounced off into the school with her beloved teachers," Michele said. "It was just like any other day."
Michele returned home for breakfast and then got a call that all Newtown schools were on lockdown. Her assumption that it was the high school proved wrong.
"I followed all of the police cars and emergency responders right to Sandy Hook," Michele said.
Bob was at work when "Michele called me and told me there was a shooting at the school, and I needed to come back," he said. "We didn't know if any of our children were affected."
As he drove home, Bob listened to radio reports that didn't provide many answers. He was just a mile away from Sandy Hook when it was announced that there were children among the 26 killed inside the school.
He and Michele "knew where my other two daughters were, but we hadn't located Joey or her classmates," Bob said. "We sort of knew. You hope for the best, but we sort of knew."
As they have coped with their grief in the aftermath, the outpouring of support has touched the Gays.
Bob estimated they've received around 20,000 cards and letters along with donations from 40 states and four countries to set up funds in Joey's name.
"I've just never seen something affect people so deeply … because I think it really hit people in a soft place," Bob said.
The overwhelming response has helped, he said, "but what happened to my little girl will never go away, and we can't have her back.
"If you lose your 80-year-old aunt, you're sad, but she lived a full life and you knew it was time," Bob said. "With a child, you just don't know where to put it. You never do. You get out of that sort of raw, open emotion phase, but you're still deeply affected."