LOUISVILLE — Brittney Thomas was 15 years old when a peer opened fire on her prayer circle at Heath High School in Paducah 20 years ago – the same age as the two students who were killed this week in a shooting at nearby Marshall County High School.
Eighteen other students were injured during Tuesday's attack in Benton, Ky., and many others also were traumatized by the experience. The survivors join an ever-growing group of people who have lived through mass shootings at schools and other locations around America.
Now Thomas is ready — along with survivors of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado — to embrace the students of Marshall County and their families during the hard months and years ahead.
“When the shooting happened to me, I just couldn’t comprehend anything," said Thomas, now 35 and living in Lexington. "We’ll kind of wait for that fog to lift, and then we’re just ready and waiting for them, for whatever it is they may need.”
Amy Over — a Columbine survivor who is part of The Rebels Project, an all-volunteer non-profit organization that supports survivors of mass trauma — was in Paducah recently for the 20-year anniversary of the Heath High shooting. The news about Marshall County hit her hard.
"We were in high school when our shooting happened too, so we feel that connection," Over said. "It just breaks my heart that these kids ... they’re starting their healing journey."
The Rebels Project is sending bracelets to Marshall County stamped with the local high school's name and the organization's website, therebelsproject.org, to show its support, Over said.
Her fellow Columbine survivor, Heather Martin, emphasized that The Rebels Project is a resource available to the students and their families right away, although the group won't be pounding on their doors with offers of help.
“We take a step back. We let them grieve," Over said. "We are there for the long run."
The organization runs a private Facebook group called "The Rebels Project: Providing Support to Those in Need," which is open to survivors of mass trauma and their families, including the students of Marshall County. The group has more than 500 members, who share their experiences with each other and often ask for advice.
The Rebels Project also plans to launch a free counseling program this year, said Over, the organization's fundraising director. And it already hosts a gathering every summer in Colorado, where survivors from across the country can connect in person.
"We have survivors everywhere," she said. “There’s just so much power and healing when you have someone that understands what you’ve gone through.”
Thomas is a member of The Rebels Project and also of the Survivors Council, a group comprised of people affected by different kinds of crime that Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear created last year to advise his office on how to better support victims.
The Survivors Council is there to support Marshall County's students and families too but will give them time to process what has happened first, said Thomas, who has two cousins who attend Marshall County High.
Even though school shootings have become more frequent in the two decades since the Heath High attack, Thomas said she and others didn't believe one would happen again in their community. This week's tragedy shattered that sense of security.
"Somehow, in the back of our heads, we thought Paducah and this area would always be safe now because it’s already happened here, and lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place," she said. "I think every time a shooting happens, it brings up memories. But when it’s just right down the road, you also just get angry because you think everybody learned from what happened to you."
Martin, who was a senior at Columbine High when that massacre occurred, said the healing process after a shooting like Marshall County's can last years.
“We graduated and went off to college and basically fell apart," she said of her fellow Columbine survivors. "It took me about 10 years to confront it."
Sharing stories with other survivors helps, Martin said. Starting The Rebels Project, of which she is co-founder and CEO, has been life-changing.
“It’s really been a huge part of my healing process," she said. "I’m forced to confront these feelings so that I’m able to help others.”
Martin's advice for the survivors in Marshall County is that there isn't a right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone goes through this experience differently.
"Don’t judge yourself for your own grieving process," she suggested. "Nobody has all the answers."
Follow Morgan Watkins on Twitter: @morganwatkins26