Julia Tiplea knows grief.
In October, she mourned the death of her friend who was fatally shot in the Las Vegas concert shooting. She couldn’t go back to Las Vegas, where she grew up, to visit the vigils, light candles or lay down flowers.
But on Feb. 16, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas alumna carefully lit long white candles with her brother at the foot of a stage with 17 angel statues, adding to the sea of warm orange light flickering through Pine Trails Park. Her parents laid down the roses her dad had given her mom for Valentine’s Day.
Now, flower piles have grown in thick stacks to nearly cover the crosses. The browned petals are brittle from baking in the Florida sun, and candles have melted into wax piles. Red marker ink runs down handwritten cards, forced off the page by the spring rain.
The city is different. People walk around wearing maroon and silver Stoneman Douglas T-shirts. Donation boxes for victims are at the local Publix. Manicured lawns have maroon and silver flowers shaped into hearts or the letters “MSD.”
Kids know, too. At Pine Trails on a sunny day in March, a woman walked alongside the piles of flowers and cards with a young boy wearing a backpack half his size.
“That’s Joaquin,” he said, pointing at a candle with an attached photo of smiling 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver, a victim of the shooting.
She watched the kid make his way alongside the flowers and candles, passing cards with tiny painted handprints.
“What does it mean that there’s a lot of stuff?” the woman asked the boy, who was wandering ahead. “That there’s a lot of people that love them, right?”
Yet at the park, away from the 17 wooden crosses and Stars of David under their blue tents, children played soccer. Parents and friends sweat on the sidelines.
They’ll pass out water bottles, maybe orange slices, and go home like they’ve done before.
The city won’t forget, but things are shifting to a new normal. A normal where banners from around the nation declaring support hang on the school’s chain-link fence alongside advertisements for local dentists and restaurants.
“Parkland won’t really ever go back to what it was,” said Tiplea, a 19-year-old UF marine science sophomore. “But it’ll come back stronger.”
When Tiplea transferred to Stoneman Douglas in 2014, she felt overwhelmed.
Even though Parkland is about 20 times smaller than Las Vegas, the school of about 3,000 was nearly triple the size of her old high school. She eased herself into Stoneman Douglas, joining the cheer team and making friends in class.
When she reflects on high school, she still thinks of junior year in the school gym for cheer practice and senior year eating lunch in the debate room with friends.
“Douglas just kind of stands out to me now, looking back, just the fact that it’s a close-knit community,” she said. “It’s a special place.”
Learning about the shooting paralyzed her. Tiplea, who missed the initial calls from her dad and texts from Parkland friends while in the shower, could do nothing but cry.
Message after message poured in, asking about her brother Luke. Tiplea didn’t know how to react. She called her dad, who was at work in another city and couldn’t get to the school.
Tiplea and her parents texted her brother, who hid in a closet, listening to the gunfire but untouched by it. As he updated them on his location, she thought how lucky they were they could talk. The cell phone service was always bad in school.
Despite losing her friend Quinton Robbins in the Las Vegas shooting, Tiplea felt the Parkland shooting was more personal. Her brother was in the building. The shooter was arrested outside of her neighborhood.
Still in Gainesville, Tiplea tried to sleep that night but couldn’t. She didn’t know who had lived or died. When people didn’t respond, she didn’t know if it was because they had dropped their phone running or if they were a victim.
She stayed up, texting her friends about their siblings, trying to piece together what had happened and who had been hurt.
The next morning, Tiplea and a friend made the five hour drive home in silence, both trying to process around what had happened.
At home in Parkland, she stayed up until 1:30 a.m., talking and crying with her family in their living room as they held each other close.
“Time just feels like it’s been almost standing still and flown by,” she said.
The names of those who died came out late Thursday night: Carmen Schentrup, the younger sister of a former classmate of Tiplea’s; Coach Aaron Feis, who greeted Tiplea and other students with a “good morning” each day as he opened the gates; Nicholas Dworet, who she remembered swimming in the lane next to her each practice at the Coral Springs Aquatic Complex.
This year, Dworet was the swimming team captain, posing for a photo with her brother, a sophomore on the team.
“Seeing his name really hurt,” she said.
While she was home, her family tried to maintain a sense of normalcy. They went to Church by the Glades and her younger brother’s soccer game. It felt good to be outside, she said. She saw old friends of hers who also came back to Parkland to grieve. Though she was happy to be reunited, it was sobering to meet at the memorial for the 17 victims.
Over Spring Break, when she came home again, the town still felt different. Everyone knows what happened. Even if they don’t directly talk about it, the mourning hangs thick in the air, ever-present.
Tiplea didn’t go by Stoneman Douglas during Spring Break. It’s eerie seeing the lines of cars with hazard lights flashing, all the people around the memorials, seeing the well-wishes and cards tied to the chain-link fence next to regular school signs.
“It’s been a rough few months, I won’t lie,” she said. “I want to make sure no one ever has to feel the way I’m feeling.”
It’s not that she wants to forget. Tiplea just wishes she could go a day without thinking about the Parkland shooting, thinking about the terror in familiar hallways.
Every time she opens Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, she sees her friends posting about Stoneman Douglas, the March For Our Lives and the Never Again movement. While Tiplea has immersed herself in it as part of the UF stands with MSD group, she wishes she could have her old daily routine back.
“It’s just hard to kind of get back to your regular life when something like this happens in your community,” she said.
She and other Stoneman Douglas alumni from her graduating class have organized a bus trip to Washington, D.C., a vigil on campus and T-shirt sales as part of the UF Stands with MSD group. The group raised about $18,000.
It helps her feel like she’s making progress.
About 12 hours before Tiplea and 112 other UF students would board two buses and head to Washington, other leaders in the UF stands with MSD group passed out T-shirts and joked about how badly they needed to pack.
Alyson Moriarty, a UF biology freshman who went to Monarch High School in Coconut Creek, handed out shirts between flipping through her red Smokin’ Notes Biology 2 packet. She had an exam that night at 6:30 p.m., moved from Friday so she could march.
She’ll carry a white poster board with black text saying, “When is the last ‘I Love You,’” and a drawing of a text message saying “There’s a shooter. I love you.”
Until she started working to organize students, Moriarty felt like she wasn’t allowed to feel anything but pain.
“I felt like I couldn’t really smile or anything,” she said.
But nearly a month later, Moriarty laughed with Jaimie Ivers and Brandon Taylor, two other leaders in the UF Stands with MSD group, about being unprepared for Washington’s cold weather and what snacks they’d packed.
Ivers, a Stoneman Douglas alumna and Tiplea’s roommate, didn’t return home to Parkland until Spring Break. Back in the town she’d lived in all her life, she couldn’t bring herself to go to the memorials at Stoneman Douglas or Pine Trails. It was too hard.
Still, Parkland was eerie, and although she didn’t go inside Douglas, in a small town like Parkland, where Douglas is the center of the city, passing it was unavoidable, she said.
“The attitude, just the entire atmosphere is entirely different,” Ivers, a 20-year-old UF public relations sophomore, said. “It’s all anyone can talk about.”
In the few days after the shooting, Ivers kept crying. Seeing the high school students who spearheaded the March For Our Lives — students who she’d had drama classes with — inspired her to take action.
“I needed to get over myself and get my s--- together and help everyone,” she said.
As others passed out T-shirts, Tiplea rushed back and forth from her apartment to the post office, shipping out shirt orders that came in from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and all across Florida.
On Saturday, in the nation’s capital, she’ll march alongside other UF students and Douglas alumni, one of the anticipated hundreds of thousands of attendees.
Brandon Taylor, a 20-year-old computer science sophomore, shows a picture of some of the signs his group has created to take to the "March for Our Lives" event in Washington on Saturday. The group plans to begin the 14 hour drive to the event on Thursday night.
She doesn’t have a sign for the march yet. By Thursday night, she still hadn’t packed. But, still, she feels ready.
Tiplea doesn’t know what future will come after the march but thinks there will be change.
She knows her friends, family and hometown will never forget. But she feels things slowly becoming okay again, as OK as things can be after tragedy.
“Relief will just come with time, and I’m going to give it that time,” she said.
Julia Tiplea, a 19-year-old marine science sophomore, hands out "UF stands with MSD" T-shirts to fundraise for her group's trip to Washington for the national "March for Our Lives" event Saturday.