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Survivors turn pain into purpose 10 years after Aurora theater shooting

Jessica Redfield Ghawi, 24, was one of 12 people killed at the Century Theater in Aurora on July 20, 2012.

AURORA, Colo. — Sandy and Lonnie Phillips want people to remember Jessica Redfield Ghawi.

"She was the most feminine tomboy you'd ever want to know," said Sandy Phillips, Jessica's mother. "She was such a giving, loving person, and she was so much fun."

Jessi was 24 years old and an aspiring sports journalist. She was among 12 people murdered at the Century Theater in Aurora 10 years ago, on July 20, 2012.

"There are days that I get teary-eyed still," Sandy said. "I don't cry as often as I once did, but the pain's the same."

For Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, that pain has become a bond and a purpose. They created an organization called Survivors Empowered, which offers resources, such as a free online toolkit, to help those in grief deal with their pain.

For the past 10 years, they have lived in a trailer and traveled from state to state to offer personal support to those who lost someone to gun violence – like the families at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, the grocery store victims in Buffalo, N.Y., and the grade school children killed in Uvalde, Texas.

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"When these people need help, we know what they're going to go through," said Lonnie, Jessi's stepfather. "They have no idea what they're going to go through."

Sandy and Lonnie are on a 22-city tour called Honor with Action to meet with survivors and push for stronger gun-reform laws. It's their way of honoring Jessi's life.

"I think the saddest part of what we do is that we have to keep doing it," Sandy said. "We'd like to work ourselves out of a job."

Their work is their way to heal.

"We have found joy even after Jessi's death," Sandy said. "I really truly thought I would never find joy again."

She said that 10 years on the road has been tough and that if she didn't have Lonnie by her side, she wouldn't be doing this anymore.

"It goes both ways," Lonnie said.

After a decade on the move, they still won't move on.

"You don't move on from this," Sandy said. "You do move forward, but you don't move on."

After the Honor with Action tour finishes, Sandy and Lonnie said they will take a year off, but they promise that their work in Jessi's name will never stop.

"Sometimes, it’s very exhausting, and sometimes after we responded to a mass shooting we have to have some down time, and quite frankly, we haven’t had a lot of down time this year," Sandy said.

Credit: 9NEWS
Victims of the Aurora theater shooting.

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