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."
Helping people like Joey
Soon after the shooting, the friends Bob and Michele left behind in Maryland when they moved to Connecticut in March 2006 — just three months after Joey was born — insisted there must be a way to help. The Gays were resolute in their commitment to raising money in Joey's name for autism, and a meeting of friends and colleagues at the home of Lauren Esakoff spawned the idea for Joey's Purple Ball.
"Joey's Purple Ball was very much hatched by our Baltimore friends," Michele said. "We loved it. We supported it right from the get-go."
Some of the organizers are Bob's friends from Calvert Hall, Towson University and his time at MCI and University of Maryland University College, among others. Michele's friends from her teaching days, plus high school friends she said she hasn't seen in 25 years, also got involved.
The gala will feature a pair of live bands, local and national celebrities, and a silent auction, organizers said. All proceeds from the gala fundraiser at Bob's alma mater, Calvert Hall, will go to The Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism.
"That's what our focus is," Bob said. "People are choosing to deal with this a lot of ways publicly, but what we want to do with it is have people help people like (Joey)."
Michele said her involvement with the local and national autism community became "a life's work."
"We were the folks applying for grants like we're giving out now, but it's a very special community of people — fellow travelers — and you learn a lot from one another, you support one another, and you realize what special gifts you have in your kids," she said.
Even the title of the event is meaningful for the family. All three of Bob and Michele's daughters grew to love the Ravens while sitting at their father's side every Sunday watching his hometown team.
Each season, Bob would get each of his girls a new Ravens jersey, and without fail, each of the new purple jerseys would soon go missing.
"(Joey) would see everyone's jersey, and the next thing you know, they'd be in her room," Bob said.
After hearing their story, Ravens cornerback Chris Johnson reached out to the family and provided tickets to the Ravens' playoff game against the Colts.
"He gave us a jersey that said Joey on the back, No. 7," Bob said. "People ask, 'Did you frame the jersey?' My wife and daughters take turns wearing it."