DECATUR — On Feb. 14, Jennifer Molson received text messages that stunned and horrified her: A friend was barricading himself in the drama room at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as shots were fired throughout the building.
Molson, a 19-year-old freshman at Millikin University, grew up near Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed in the mass shooting that day that touched off a national push for stricter gun laws. Teenage survivors spearheaded the March for Our Lives, a movement that brought hundreds of thousands of young people to marches in Washington, D.C., and in cities across the country on Saturday in one of the biggest youth protests since the Vietnam era.
Molson said she didn’t know any of the shooting victims personally, but she has been inspired by seeing her friends from back home turn tragedy into a call for action.
That’s why she took part in Decatur’s version of the March for our Lives, joining a group that walked half a mile through pouring cold rain and sleet from the Decatur Civic Center to Old King’s Orchard Community Center.
Along with her Millikin classmate, Sami Dickerson, Molson said she wanted to be a part of something locally since she couldn’t be with her friends in the nation’s capital or Florida.
“It was really inspiring ... we were all just desperate to do something,” she said.
Alida Graham, board president of the community center, said about 50 people showed up for the march despite the inclement weather. She said another 100 people came to the center afterward to take part in a silent vigil and hear speeches from students and community activists.
The turnout was a pleasant surprise. When Graham arrived at the Civic Center, she said there were only a few people there and she assumed the weather would keep people at home. But more and more people started to arrive as the 1 p.m. start time drew closer.
“As people started coming out ... it just warms my heart that we have people in the community willing to come out in this kind of weather and stand up for our kids,” Graham said. “Coming out here, believing that our kids deserve to live in safety and peace. So yeah, I’m really, really pleased.”
Decatur's event was organized by Old King’s Orchard Community Center, Greater Decatur Black Chamber of Commerce and the Decatur Defenders.
It comes less than a week after hundreds of people demonstrated their support for the Second Amendment in downtown Decatur in front of the Law Enforcement Center. On March 14, the one-month anniversary of the shooting, students at multiple Central Illinois high schools also staged walkouts to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting and call for stricter gun laws.
Organizers had previously said the focus of Saturday’s march would be more about addressing community violence rather than gun regulations, but a number of people carried signs such as, “Gun violence is a public safety issue,” and "Protect kids, not guns," that directly spoke to the issue of gun control.
Ella Smith, a 15-year-old student at Eisenhower High School student, carried a handmade sign that read, “No more silence! End gun violence.”
With Smith was her classmate, 15-year-old Torrica Baltimore, who said her friends talk about school shootings like the one in Parkland, and she is scared of the possibility that one could happen here.
“We’re kids and we shouldn’t have to be worried about being shot up at school,” Baltimore said.
As the girls pushed through the sleet and the wind that whipped her umbrella around, Baltimore said coming out despite the weather should show people that students like her are “determined and we will not be quiet.”
The crowd was a mix of teens, parents and a number of older residents who said they want to make a better world for children.
Among them was John Stidham, 62, who came out Saturday in support of those who want to place more restrictions on access to guns.
Americans shouldn’t be afraid to make changes to the U.S. Constitution that could provide for stricter gun regulation, he said. He noted that they have already done so with amendments, such as those that abolished slavery and that banned alcoholic beverages and then made them legal again.
Stidham said he could see the possibility for change in the energy behind the marches across the country on Saturday.
“They’re talking about this gun stuff,” he said. “If they want to do something about it, all they need to do is get together and vote the people in who will stand up and will change the Constitution.”
Molson said she was hopeful that the nationwide movement would highlight the importance of the issue and at least start a conversation with those who may not necessarily agree with its purpose.
“I hope that even the people who do not necessarily understand or agree can see that it is important to so many of us,” she said, “that maybe it is time that we come together and try to find some common ground.”