After the success of last year's fundraiser in memory of her daughter, Josephine "Joey" Gay, who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Michele Gay wants to continue the momentum with a second fundraiser to fuel a safe schools initiative.
So the Columbia native was in the area last week to meet with volunteers to work on Joey's Second Annual Purple Ball and visit the offices of Vice President Joe Biden and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal on behalf of Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative — the pending nonprofit formed by six Sandy Hook mothers that has grown into a national advocate for school safety and security.
"Joey's at the heart of this," Michele Gay said Thursday in an interview at the Cross Keys Radisson in Baltimore.
"I very much feel her behind us in our efforts to make the world a better place," Gay said. "Whether it's helping families with autism or whether we are advocating for improved school security across the nation, I feel very strongly that she's a part of this."
In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., advocacy has become something of a way of life for Gay, a Centennial High graduate. She and her husband, Bob, a Towson native who attended Calvert Hall College High School, now live outside Boston. But much of Michele's energy is now dedicated to trying to prevent tragic incidents like the one that took her daughter's life.
"We travel the country and speak, and share our mission and our message, which is education and empowerment for everyone — from the cafeteria staff to the superintendent," Gay said. "We are trying to provide tools and education for everyone to gather, collaborate and make meaningful change in their own communities."
Shortly after the shooting, Gay said she and fellow Sandy Hook Elementary parent Alissa Parker joined a group of other mothers who have lost children to bring attention onto what they thought was a critical issue.
"We were really struck by the fact that the nation was obviously very affected by what happened to our community and what happened to our families, but so much of the conversation was going to other areas: gun control, a little bit focused on mental health," Gay said. "We didn't really hear a lot of meaningful discussion ... about making our schools safer."
Since Safe and Sound was founded, the group quickly grew to a national level and was consulted on, among other issues, the federal guidelines for school safety.
Gay was in Washington last week to visit with many of the contacts she had made through her work so far, including Biden and Blumenthal's staff, and representatives of the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers. That organization uses specialists and thought leaders from the school security field to provide feedback to school systems.
While the experts provide that support, the Newtown parents provide a face for the cause. She said the impact they have, wherever they go, is tremendous.
"It's amazing that it's so empowering to the communities," Gay said. "We're a bit taken aback by how impactful it is for folks visiting our sites or attending our events."
Its status as a pending nonprofit hasn't stop Safe and Sound from building its base of good work, but they anticipate that the June 14 Joey's Second Annual Purple Ball fundraiser will be "a really meaningful way" to launch it in full, Gay said.
The first Joey's Purple Ball, which was held last summer at Calvert Hall, was a way for the Gays' friends here to show support in a time of incredible need. Joey was just months old when they moved to Connecticut, but the gala event represented Joey's spirit well, her mother said.
"I was blown away," Gay said. "The turnout was incredible. It was almost like a reunion feel about it — friends from high school, college, old colleagues came. It was a very exciting, very festive celebration of a little girl's life, and what we were going to do to carry on and honor her through Joey's Fund."
Created through the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation, Joey's Fund was established by the Gays to honor Joey's memory and help families of children with autism. Joey lived with both autism and apraxia, a condition that limited her speaking.
The event, as this year's ball is slated to do so, featured live music, food and an auction. The 2013 event raised more than $55,000 for Joey's Fund. Using those funds, 13 Connecticut families of children with autism received grants for services such as horseback riding therapy and speech therapy.
Gay said the organization has enough leftover funds to continue its grant program even without the proceeds of this year's Purple Ball. Lauren Esakoff, the event's chair, said Safe and Sound was the next logical choice as the beneficiary of this year's ball.
"I don't ever want to get too far away from why we're doing this," Esakoff said. "The purpose is to honor Joey's memory, and to raise money for an organization that, as a committee, we find near and dear. The work Michele is doing is very important in terms of affecting, nationally, how we look at safety in our schools."
Both Gay and Esakoff expect a larger crowd at this year's event as those who didn't make it last year vowed to make it this year, they said.
"There's been a lot of work done, a lot of connections made and to have the proceeds from the Purple Ball going into our nonprofit, Safe and Sound, will be really helpful," Gay said.
Joey's Purple Ball is slated to take place Saturday, June 14 at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson. Tickets are available at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/joeys-purple-ball-tickets-10156938677.