Mark Barden, the cofounder and CEO of Sandy Hook Promise (sandyhookpromise.org) and former Yonkers resident, is continually driven by the memory of his son, Daniel. “It’s coming up on 10 years since our little Daniel was shot to death in that horrific shooting,” says Barden of the tragedy that claimed 28 lives. “Our life without him goes on, so we have to continue to acknowledge and reckon with that. With Sandy Hook Promise, we are reflecting on our origins. We are acknowledging the significant growth, progress, and positive outcomes we have been able to achieve and looking forward to building on that success.”
Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit organization formed and led by a group of family members who lost loved ones on that December day in 2012, educates and empowers youth to prevent violence, engages in the furthering of bipartisan school- and gun-safety legislation, and creates programs to stem both violence and suicide.
Yet despite Sandy Hook Promise’s passion and work, the government hasn’t always met Barden’s hopes in passing comprehensive gun-safety legislation. “When the organization was just beginning, we wanted to use our voice to find ways to prevent this tragedy from happening to other people,” says Barden. “So, we advocated for what was then on the table, which was a bill to close a loophole in the Federal Background Check system. That was a catalyst for us, because that effort failed despite the support of over 90 percent of Americans. We had to rebuild and look at it through a different lens, and that’s when we landed on the essence of prevention and learning.”
That redirected focus has resulted in a number of successful programs, including Start With Hello and Say Something. According to Barden, “no fewer than 11 school shootings that were planned and imminent have been averted thanks to students who have recognized the warning signs. Combine that with hundreds of suicides that have been averted by either first-person reports or a friend sending in a tip that they were concerned about someone.”
Sandy Hook Promise has also been working locally to form Westchester Student Leaders through their SAVE Promise Club. “SAVE, which is an organization out of North Carolina, stands for Students Against Violence Everywhere, and it has afforded us a wonderful vehicle to build these clubs into schools so that the curriculum can be passed from student to student and from one grade to the next, so it really becomes part of the fabric of who the students are and of the school itself,” Barden says. “[Student leaders] attend a summit at least once a year where they share ideas, collaborate, and build on those ideas.”
This doesn’t mean Barden and Sandy Hook Promise have given up on legislation. The organization was involved in the creation of the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which recently became federal law, as well as in passing state laws, such as the STANDUP Act, “which offers schools across various states access to suicide prevention training and suicide awareness training,” says Barden. “We have also written guidelines for states to follow, around how schools should and should not conduct active-shooter training, as we feel it is traumatizing and counterproductive for students to endure simulations.”
Barden is additionally involved in a docu-concert to be released in December, titled A Father’s Promise. The project originated in 2013, when filmmaker Rick Korn tapped Barden to create a work exploring the role of music in healing. “Since my life was as a professional musician before the tragedy, [Korn] wanted to involve me in the project,” says Barden. “Over several years, it has slowly morphed more into our story specifically, and it mainly explores my journey through music and through the tragedy and back to music as one of the means to heal from tragedy.”
Despite whatever projects Barden pursues, his focus remains squarely on Sandy Hook Promise and forever honoring the memory of Daniel. “We are going to continue in a much more focused and deliberate way as we grow,” says Barden, “so we can really have that positive impact and truly build that culture of connection, empathy, and upstanding people in the communities we serve, which will one day be everywhere.”