Song writer and musician Jim Hiltz of Eldersburg had just left one school when he turned on his radio and heard about another. The news was the worst he ever heard.
Hiltz was on his way home from eating lunch with his wife Whitney, a second-grade teacher at Centennial Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City, when he heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December.
Twenty children and six staff members were killed prior to the shooter, Adam Lanza, taking his own life. Lanza had also shot and killed his mother prior to arriving at the school.
Hiltz, who has four children ages 11, 14, 15 and 17, said hearing that news after having just visited with his wife's second-grade students made it hit him that much harder.
"On the X amount of years I've been on this planet, I think it's the hardest news I ever heard," he said of the shooting.
As a songwriter who has written past memorial songs for charitable donations, the tragic events inspired Hiltz to write a new song, called "Failure is Not an Option."
"We can't fail our children -- this can't happen anymore," he said. "We are becoming a society that's becoming numb to these types of tragedies because it's happening so often."
Hiltz said he already had a melody in his head and the lyrics came within 10 minutes of hearing the news about Sandy Hook. He immediately called California-based guitar player, Kyle Reitz, with whom he collaborates.
"I [write] what I feel, I get a melody in my head and I make the words fit the melody," he said.
Hiltz, who played bass guitar for the song, recorded the tune in January along with Reitz; Larry Wilson of Eldersburg on acoustic guitar; Steve Kilgallon of Elkridge playing the drums; and Reitz's mother Rachel McCuster, a Piney Ridge Elementary School teacher, singing.
"The fact that we had a teacher singing the song was in and of itself kind of neat," he said.
Hiltz said he and his band, The Rhythm Surf Monkeys, are in the process of recording a full length album to be called "Highway 9."
"But the world's been crazy so we've done some detours," he said.
These detours include a Sept. 11 memorial song called "Where Were You When My Dad Became a Hero," which debuted in April 2012 at a Century High School fundraiser. Hiltz said the proceeds for this song are donated to Sept. 11 first responders who are still experiencing side effects and health issues.
Hiltz said he was inspired to write that song in 2009 during a day when he wondered why flags were flying at half-staff. He then realized he had completely forgotten that day happened to be Sept. 11. He said he wrote the song so he would never make that mistake again.
Hiltz also released "A Warrior Song" this May and said the proceeds for that song will go toward the Wounded Warrior Project. This organization is a nonprofit that serves veterans and service members who incurred physical or mental illness or injury, on or after Sept. 11.
Hiltz said he sells CDs at various fundraisers and plans to make the songs available on iTunes.
"There are songs that weren't written to make money; they were written to do good things," he said.
On Sunday, Aug. 11, Hiltz and his family attended "The Power of Peace Family Festival" in Hartford, Conn. He said the first-time event was planned as a response to the Newtown shootings and other violent crimes around the world.
He said he and his family arrived at the festival in a 1977 Volkswagen bus adorned with peace signs and flowers. He said he also brought along a pink flamingo in honor of late Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto, who reportedly had a fondness for them.
Due to a recent arm surgery, Hiltz said he was unable to perform "Failure is Not an Option," but he said he was able to collect some donations for the arts-focused nonprofit "Healing Newtown."
Hiltz said there were multiple musicians there who wrote Newtown-related songs, and he plans to collaborate with them in the future.
He said his heart broke seeing some of the shooting victims' families there, displaying a "Rock of Angels" monument.
"As a parent, I could never get over wondering what those last final moments were like," he said.
His wife, Whitney Hiltz, agreed. She said the news was just as difficult for her, as a teacher at her school was close friends with the mother of one of the victims. Whitney said she had never worried about her safety as an elementary school teacher prior to that day, during which she said her heart also broke as a mother.
"It's the worst thing a parent can go through, to lose a child, but to lose a child in such a violent way," she said.
For privacy purposes, Hiltz said he had tried to be careful in contacting victims' families regarding his song, though he did say he hopes the concept of songs for a cause would grow.
"I am very blessed to be surrounded by these great musicians who believe in the concept," he said.