A lot has changed for Rhonda Hart in the year since her 14-year-old daughter, Kimberly Vaughan, was shot and killed in the Santa Fe school massacre on May 18, 2018.
Nowadays, she’s helping former Congressman Beto O’Rourke campaign for president.
Hart attended the State of the Union as the guest of Houston Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher. She’s met top lawmakers in Washington, D.C. with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and is a Survivor Fellow with Everytown for Gun Safety. She and her son, Tyler, 11, even got to watch Friday night football with The Pioneer Woman‘s Ree Drummond and her family at their home in Oklahoma.
“What a year it’s been,” the 37-year-old U.S. Army veteran tells PEOPLE.
None of this takes away the excruciating pain she feels every time she thinks about how much she misses exchanging inside jokes and silly text messages with Kimberly, planning their next Harry Potter convention trip or just snuggling up on the couch watching TV.
That’s all gone now.
The last time Hart saw her daughter was on the morning of the shooting, as Kimberly headed into the building where she ultimately lost her life along with seven other students and two teachers.
Hart, who’d worked as a school bus driver for the Santa Fe Independent School District at the time, had just finished her route when she happened to see her daughter walking by.
“I love you!” she called out the bus window.
Smiling, Kimberly turned and answered her mother in American Sign Language, saying “I love you!” back and prompting Hart to do the same in return – one of many sweet rituals they shared.
Less than a half hour later, her daughter was dead.
“She was just too awesome for us down here, so she had to go upstairs and be awesome up there,” she said after her daughter died.
DREADING ‘THE BLUR’ OF PAIN
Since then, in the dark moments that take hold of Hart when she thinks of her daughter and all that could have been, she is gripped by a feeling she dreads.
“I call it the blur, which first happened when I found out what happened to Kimberly,” Hart says. “Physically, my body hurts. It’s kind of like having a newborn. Everything hurts, everybody’s crying and you don’t know if you’ve eaten yet. Emotionally… it’s very tough.”
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In the weeks and days before the one-year anniversary of the shooting, “the blur came back,” Hart says.
She’d already been bracing herself for the one-year anniversary of the Santa Fe shooting, expecting the worst, when she heard about the shootings at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on April 30 and then, just a week later, the shooting at the Denver-area STEM school on May 7.
“That hit me like a ton of bricks,” she says. “I saw this picture of this little girl being led out of the school. She’s probably six, in her tiny little Gryffindor shirt and I was like, ‘You know what? This should not be happening.’ “
On Hart’s Facebook page, next to a picture of the scared little girl with tears in her eyes, she wrote, “This little Gryffindor is facing a real-life ‘Dementor’ known as gun violence. It doesn’t have to be like this. I lost my Ravenclaw last year to this same thing. Call 202-224-3121 (for the U.S. Senate.) Text HONOR to 644-33. Join a real-life Dumbledore’s Army and fight it.”
STOPPING THE SHOOTINGS
Like other parents who have lost their children in school shootings, Hart has been working nonstop to try to prevent other families from having to endure such unimaginable pain.
Just hours after she found out her daughter had been killed, Hart took to Facebook, writing, “Folks-call your damn senators. Call your congressmen. We need GUN CONTROL. WE NEED TO PROTECT OUR KIDS.”
She took on President Donald Trump when he came to visit families after the shooting.
In the days and months after the shooting, Hart started working with March for Our Lives to push for gun violence prevention.
Not everyone in Santa Fe agreed with her views and when things became “too toxic,” she and her son moved to another town.
Trying to effect change on a local level, Hart ran for the board of education in that town in April – but lost.
Shrugging off the defeat, she says she got an encouraging call from O’Rourke afterward. “He was like, ‘I’m super proud of you, and I know it was a hard race.'”
That meant a lot to her. So did learning that he keeps a picture of Kimberly in his duct-taped wallet. “I try not to bug him because, you know, he’s trying to run for president,” she says.
Hart hopes change comes soon.
“I mean, we haven’t fixed this in 20 years, since Columbine. I was actually evacuated from my high school two days after Columbine. Two days in a row because we got threats. And then, 19 years later, we still haven’t fixed this – and now my kid is a statistic,” she says.
Hart is working so hard to reduce gun violence, she says, “Because this sucks so bad. I can’t imagine any more families having to go through this.”