Anisha Saripalli’s face glowed in the light of 17 candles representing her former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School classmates and staff members. She read their names out loud in a solemn voice.
“Alyssa Alhadeff. Scott Beigel. Martin Duque Anguiano,” she began.
For many people from Parkland, Florida, Valentine’s Day is no longer defined by chocolate hearts and roses. Instead, it marks the anniversary of a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people.
“Nicholas Dworet. Aaron Feis. Jaime Guttenberg,” Saripalli continued.
About 80 students gathered in Plaza of the Americas on the evening of Feb. 14 to observe the third anniversary of the shooting. March for Our Lives Gainesville, a local branch of the national organization formed immediately following the tragedy to advocate for gun reform, honors the anniversary each year with a vigil on the plaza.
Due to COVID-19, the MSD Anniversary Vigil took place in a hybrid format this year, giving people the option to attend in person or through Zoom. About 30 participants joined virtually.
Nearly all in-person participants lit candles as event organizers reminded them to maintain social distancing. Somber students sought comfort in each other, embracing during the emotional speeches that followed.
Chris Hixon. Luke Hoyer. Cara Loughran.
More than 20 people stood in the crowd while UF President Kent Fuchs talked about Carmen Schentrup, a 16-year-old MSD senior who was admitted to the UF Honors program just days before she was killed in the shooting. Carmen had dreams of becoming a medical scientist and developing cures for diseases like ALS.
She was excited to become a Gator but didn't live long enough to claim her place in the UF community, Fuchs said.
“I grieve for Carmen, I grieve for her classmates and for all of you here who indeed will have a lifelong connection to this unspeakable tragedy,” he said.
Gina Montalto. Joaquin ‘Guac’ Oliver. Alaina Petty.
Alyson Moriarty, co-president of March for Our Lives Gainesville, spoke about the importance of the annual vigil.
“It gives people a space to reunite and find that community they had back in high school,” the 22-year-old UF behavioral and cognitive neuroscience senior said. “I think that’s a huge part of the vigils is providing that community.”
Students in March for Our Lives Gainesville feel a responsibility to keep the event going after they graduate, Moriarty said.
"We're doing this whether they're here or not because we're not gonna forget,” she said.
Saripalli, current co-president of March for Our Lives Gainesville, is set to replace Moriarty next year as president. Bringing the community together for this anniversary was especially important during the loneliness many community members felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
“This is kind of like a bittersweet reunion among the MSD kids and people from South Florida,” a 19-year-old UF biomedical engineering junior, said.
After her speech, Saripalli lit 17 candles to honor the victims of the shooting and held a 19 second moment of silence to honor the two students who died of suicide in the year following the shooting. She read the victims’ names aloud as she lit the candles.
Meadow Pollack. Helena Ramsay.
Maia Hebron, vice president of March for Our Lives Gainesville, was a senior at MSD during the shooting and said she felt nervous knowing Sunday was its third anniversary.
“I came to UF with a few of my close friends from home. It was definitely a comforting feeling to know I was coming with people who understood what I've been through because we went through it together,” said Hebron, a 21-year-old UF communication sciences junior.
On the day of the shooting, Hebron just finished her astronomy class and was headed to the restroom when she heard the fire alarm go off. She continues to think about the traumatic events that followed every day.
“It’s really hard to remember what everyone has been through,” Hebron said. “Even though it’s been three years, it doesn’t change the amount of people that have been impacted.”
Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup and Peter Wang.
Jiselle Lee contributed to this report.
Contact Valeriya Antonshchuk and Alexander Lugo at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @Vantonshchuk and @AlexLugo67.
Alex is a fourth-year journalism student at UF and is in his third semester at The Alligator where he is serving as the university editor. He previously reported on university administration and the city and county commission. In his free time, he enjoys video games, traveling and being outdoors.
Valeriya Antonshchuk is a junior telecommunication-news and political science student at the University of Florida. As a news assistant for the Avenue, Valeriya covers Gainesville's entertainment and culture news weekly. Valeriya was originally born in Ukraine and speaks fluent Russian.