(LANSING, Mich.) — When thousands of Michigan State University students returned to campus on Monday for the first day of classes there following a deadly shooting, moms were there to help.
The moms stood with signs offering free hugs for the students, many of whom had not returned to campus since Feb. 13, when a gunman entered the East Lansing campus and fatally shot three students and injured five others, according to authorities.
“When they saw the parents with ‘free hugs’ signs, that’s when students would typically burst into tears, in a good way, because I think they were just so overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude,” Heather Sertic of Traverse City, Michigan, told ABC News. “What we heard most was, ‘Thank you for caring about me. Thank you for making us feel safe.'”
Sertic, who graduated from Michigan State University in 1999, said she was on the phone with her daughter, a Michigan State junior, on the night of Feb. 13, when they both started getting text messages and alerts about an active shooter on campus.
Sertic said she stayed on the phone with her daughter, while also checking on the safety of her nephew, who is a freshman at the university. Both Sertic’s daughter and nephew were safe, but she said it was a “very scary ordeal” for them all.
In the days following the shooting, Sertic, a mom of four, said she struggled mentally herself and also heard the anxiety in her daughter’s voice as she talked about having to return to classes.
Last Thursday, just three days before classes were scheduled to resume, Sertic said she posted a message on a Facebook group of Michigan State parents from across the country.
“I really felt strongly about doing something for all of the students because I knew there had to be others who felt very much the same as my daughter,” Sertic said. “I threw an idea out to this parents’ association group and said, ‘What if we got together and set up a table and a tent and we had some snacks, whatever we can come up with, and we’re just there to show the students we support them and we care for them? We can give them hugs if they want hugs.'”
Sertic said that within hours, parents in Michigan and across the country had mobilized, volunteering to help in-person and reaching out to businesses and companies for donations.
By Monday morning, Sertic estimates the group had raised over $30,000 in cash donations and product donations like food, gift cards and toiletries for students.
“There is absolutely no way that this could have been what it was without all of the other parent volunteers and all the businesses that jumped in,” Sertic said. “The generosity and the amount of love and compassion that [everyone] showed in jumping in to support this really helped make this possible.”
Sertic estimates the parent group reached at least 10,000 students on campus Monday, adding of the students’ appreciation, “We must have heard ‘thank you’ 2 million times.”
The group included not only parents of Michigan State students but also students’ grandparents and siblings, as well as university alumni.
“It not only helped the students, but I can genuinely tell you that it helped the parents too,” Sertic said, adding that she’s getting text messages, phone calls and thank you cards from students’ family members. “I think it’s starting some of the healing process for us all.”
Sertic said she realizes the hugs and the giveaways students received Monday won’t fix the grief they feel over the loss of the three of their classmates and won’t make things “go back to normal.”
Michigan State officials said this week that Berkey Hall and the MSU Union building, where the shootings occurred, will remain closed for the rest of the school year, and about 300 classes will be moved to other locations on campus.
But Sertic said she hopes the parents’ efforts made the students realize there is an “army of people” supporting them.
“My goal initially was just to make one kid smile … as I thought about it throughout the day on Monday, I thought there was one person, totally unaffiliated with that university, who came on campus and did that much damage,” Sertic said, referring to the suspected gunman, who was later found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound off campus, according to police. “And my goal then became, if one person can do that much negative, imagine how this many people can do that much more good.”
She added, “That’s what it turned into, taking the damage that one person did and turning it into [something] positive from so many people.”
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