About a month ago, Ariana Ortega wanted to study at UF after she graduated from high school because of its high-quality education.
When she opened the acceptance letter Feb. 9, she screamed, jumped up and down and hugged her mom.
But everything changed Feb. 14, when 17 people were shot and killed in her high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida. One of her best friends, 16-year-old Carmen Schentrup, died in the carnage. Carmen had planned to attend UF in Fall, Ariana said.
In the days since Carmen’s death, Ariana has found a new reason to become a Gator: to honor Carmen, who will never fulfill her own dreams of walking across Turlington Plaza or cheering for the Orange and Blue from the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium stands.
“It feels right,” said the 17-year-old who plans to major in industrial engineering. “I know Carmen wanted to go there really bad, so being there — it just feels right.”
Ariana was one of the hundreds of students who marched to advocate for stricter gun laws in Tallahassee on Wednesday. About 5,000 people attended the march, according to one of the about 20 police officers who stood bordering the crowd of protesters.
Before Carmen became a victim — before her name became a symbol for gun control activism in Florida — she was Ariana’s first friend in seventh grade when Ariana moved to Parkland. Carmen was also new in town.
“We bonded instantly,” Ariana said. “From there, we helped each other adjust.”
On Wednesday, joined by other students from her high school, Ariana met with state legislators before marching with hundreds of people who flooded the streets.
Zach Randolph, a 15-year-old Stoneman Douglas sophomore, rode a bus from South Florida to the state’s Capitol to protest.
Prepped in white tennis shoes that had the names of all of the 17 victims around them and an “NC” scribbled on the soles to represent Nikolas Cruz, Zach said he was there for Jaime Guttenberg, a 14-year-old who died at the shooting. Jaime was Jesse’s sister, and Jesse is Zach’s best friend.
Zach said he wrote “NC” under his shoes to step on him every time he walks.
His right hand was balled up in a fist glued to his side as he gripped a sign in his other hand that read, “We are the spark that will light the fire that will burn the NRA down.”
After hiding for more than two hours in a peer counseling room at Stoneman Douglas the day of the shooting, Zach said he called Jesse to check in on him. Jesse said he hadn’t heard from Jaime yet. Zach assured his friend that his sister must be safe with other teachers.
“Maybe they didn’t let her go on her phone,” he told Jesse. “It’s going to take a while to spot her out of 3,000 students.”
Later that night, however, Zach’s mom got a phone call.
It was Jesse’s mom, Zach said. Jaime had died.
When he heard the words, a blinding rage took over him. He turned and punched a wall.
“I’m just mad at the whole situation,” he said. “It’s unreal.”
It wasn’t sadness that he felt after Jaime’s death, he said, but anger. Anger at the people who let it happen. The march in Tallahassee was his way of demanding change.
And Nikolas Cruz? He’s angry at him, too.
“I hope he rots in a cell,” Zach said. “The death penalty is too easy for him.”
Ginger Schantz, of Gainesville, is a mother of two school-aged children. She drove up to rally for gun control and support students like Zach who are going through “the unimaginable.”
“There are no words,” the 53-year-old said. “I don’t have a vocabulary to describe the depth of sadness and fear — the depth of emotion that you could experience as a mother thinking of something like that happening to your children.”
After Schantz found out about the march on Facebook, she immediately started recruiting politically active friends, she said.
After the stay-at-home mom prepared breakfast and packed lunch for her kids Wednesday morning, she reminded them she would be driving up to protest.
She prepped them by giving them the contact information of their “back-up mom,” who would be the emergency contact at school for them during the day.
Schantz’s husband also happened to be out-of-town for the day.
“It was a difficult day for me to leave,” she said. “But I needed to do it.”
She convinced three fellow mothers to join her, and all four of them did what mothers do on road trips — talk about their children. After putting themselves in the Parkland mothers’ positions, they all agreed it would be horrific. They were all eager to support the victims, she said.
As she and the other moms marched to the state capitol, a sea of teenagers surrounded them, shouting for stricter gun control and pushing their fists toward the sky.
“They’re fearless,” she said of the students. “They’re going to take this problem head on.”
Once she becomes a freshman at UF, Ariana Ortega won’t have to explain how she had been laughing with her friends when the school’s fire alarm went off for the second time on Feb. 14.
She won’t have to recall how she heard sirens and couldn’t figure out why her school administrators were rushing her off campus.
When she meets Stoneman Douglas alumni at UF, she won’t need to reveal how she cried and clung onto a friend when she discovered someone they knew had been injured the day of the shooting.
When she recounts that experience now — her experience during the high school shooting on Valentine’s Day her senior year — her voice is steady. She enunciates words like “change” and “guns.”
After Feb. 14, she is no longer just a high school student. She’s become an activist for gun control.
She said she’s thought a lot about how — and if — she and her schoolmates will ever get over the experience.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to be the same,” she said. But it doesn’t mean she won’t try.
“It may not come all at once. Change comes step by step.”