Danielle Koon had a decision to make.
Texts from her daughter hours earlier revealed the horror taking place: “I can hear shots. I can hear people screaming. I think they’re coming closer mom.”
Sixteen-year-old Brooklyn was trapped in a room at Stoneman Douglas High School with her classmates. As the world now knows, a gunman opened fire, fatally shooting 14 students and three staff members and wounding others in the Valentine’s Day school shooting.
A text tree with members of her stake, including the parents of 14-year-old Alaina Petty who would later learn their daughter had been killed in the shooting, served as their source for information as news traveled fastest through word-of-mouth.
Koon received word that Brooklyn was safe and had been taken to safety at the nearby Marriott. But two and a half hours had passed and two of her young women, Maddy Wilford and Alaina Petty, were still missing.
“As a stake Young Women’s president, you know all these kids,” Koon said, adding that she had been a Young Women adviser and camp leader prior to her call to serve as stake Young Women president one year ago. “You know their parents. You know their families. You’re worried about them and the fact that it had been about two and a half hours and we still hadn’t found Maddy and we hadn’t found Alaina, Maddy’s mom was really stressing out and she and I just started running.”
Together, Missy Wilford, Maddy's mother, and Koon ran about 8 miles that day and were en route to the Marriott when they received word that Maddy Wilford was among those who were shot. She was being taken to the hospital for immediate surgery.
The decision was clear: Koon could go to her daughter or remain with Missy Wilford, a single mother.
Koon called her daughter and told her that she loved her but couldn’t come to her right then.
“I feel really bad because I feel like I should be there shepherding you, but at the same time Maddy had been shot and her mom needed someone to support her right then,” Koon told her daughter.
"The Lord puts us where we need to be and she was certainly guided and listened that day," Missy Wilford said of Koon. "And I think more than anything, as a mother, she made a call. ... She came with me, knowing that I didn’t have anyone there and they came and waited until I did have someone with me before they saw their own daughter, which I think just speaks volumes to how they are as a family."
Koon and her husband, Ryan, who also came to the hospital, didn’t make it home until the early morning hours.
'The Lord puts us where we need to be'
This is not the first time Koon has found herself in a hospital with those she has been called to serve. Just under four years ago, Koon was serving as a Primary president in McKinney, Texas, when on June 9, 2014, a 6-year-old member of her Primary was run over by a car while hiding under a pile of blankets while playing in a neighbor’s driveway.
That night as their son, Graham, was taken to the pediatric intensive care unit, Micah and Lindsey Kormylo faced a decision over who should stay with their son and who should hold their 6-week-old baby who couldn’t enter the unit due to age restrictions.
“And in comes Danielle out of nowhere,” Micah Kormylo recalled. They didn’t know Koon very well, but they knew she was their ward’s Primary president. “When we probably needed someone to be there with us the most, when we were too proud, too shy, too new, too whatever to reach out and call for help. She was there and she was an answer to the prayers we hadn’t even said yet.”
Graham Kormylo made a miraculous recovery. His father said that in his opinion Koon was the catalyst because of the care she gave to their family during Graham’s 88 consecutive days in the hospital. So, when he heard about the shooting that took place at Brooklyn Koon’s school, he wept.
“My immediate reaction was anger that Danielle, this angel, and her family would have to go through that,” Micah Kormylo said. “And then my second thought was everybody in her ward is going to be in really good hands, just because I’ve seen that for myself. I’ve seen how Danielle’s attitude is 'help first and ask questions later.'”
Just as Koon had been in the hospital with the Kormylo family, she was with the Wilford family as Maddy Wilford underwent surgery. In both instances, the families recall Danielle coordinating visits and meals in the days that followed.
'People drawing on the Atonement of the Savior'
But Koon is not alone. Members of the Coral Springs Florida Stake have collectively joined together in an effort to turn outward and in doing so, they have found healing.
“For me, that’s just been a huge testimony confirmation to see at the individual level so many people drawing on the Atonement of the Savior and the blessings of the gospel in their lives,” said President Jon Tholen, second counselor in the Coral Springs Florida Stake presidency. “For me, it was a great example watching Brother (Ryan) Petty. He’s actually been going around and visiting the other parents who lost children.”
As the Coral Springs stake leaders began to discuss their stake’s upcoming youth conference, they knew they wanted their youth to take part in something uplifting rather than something that would prolong grief, “to really have the youth find peace in Christ and feel of His love," President Tholen said.
They became aware of an opportunity to re-sod the lawn and repaint an outdoor wall at a runaway shelter for troubled teens. As President Tholen and Sister Koon visited the shelter, President Tholen describes having “a Brigham Young moment” where he knew: “This is the place.”
The project ended up being much more involved than anticipated, as a sprinkler system had to be redone and the wall had to be power washed before being prepped with a base coat. The success of the project was the result of the combined efforts of many members of the Coral Springs stake as they gave time, equipment and materials.
On the day of the project, the Coral Spring stake youth joined together with 14 youth from the shelter to work alongside one another. Among the youth was Maddy Wilford.
When one girl was hesitant to take part, Koon introduced her to Maddy and the two found common ground as Maddy shared her story.
“I kind of tried to lift her up because I could tell that she was having a hard time,” Maddy Wilford said. “It kind of changed her mood and she asked a few questions about what had happened and I told her that I was involved in the shooting and that I got shot but that I was OK and that I was happy to serve her, even though I had all of this going on.”
Another who helped with the service project was Kelly Petty, mother of Alaina Petty, who volunteered to drive knowing that many of the kids in their stake didn’t have transportation. She knew that Alaina would’ve been there if she could have been.
“It was hard to be in the car with the girls because she wasn’t there,” Kelly Petty said. “I was just really sad that she couldn’t be there helping them because I know she would’ve been right in there, carrying sod, getting all dirty and helping lay it and she would’ve really had a lot of fun.”
'A stronger courage'
Kelly Petty was also asked by Koon to assist in painting a mural on a wall behind the shelter. The message they chose to paint on the wall was simple, it reads: “fearless faith.” It is a message noticeably different than that of many Stoneman Douglas students who have been vocal since the shooting.
“They’re kind of being more out there and they’re kind of like, ‘If you’re not on my side then you’re against me,’” Maddy Wilford said of some of the messages shared in the media. “But with faith, you just have faith that things will get better ... and it’s more like a stronger courage.”
“I think it just shows a stark contrast,” President Tholen said. “If you have faith in Christ and peace in Christ, you can be fearless even in times of trials and challenges.”
Ryan Petty believes the solution to these problems are not found in policies or political arenas, which are seeking to resolve an issue after the fact. It is instead found in reaching out to meet the needs of others.
“What we’ve tried to do as a family and what the stake youth are trying to show us are that the real ways to solve these problems are to reach out beyond your immediate circle of friends to people who may not be like you, may not believe exactly what you believe, may not look like you, and to serve them as our Savior would have us do,” Petty said. "That's really the solution here."
Koon said that in the wake of both the Parkland shooting and Graham Kormylo’s accident, her only hope was to comfort and help the families impacted and not cause harm. However, in both incidents, she has been an observer of the healing power of Jesus Christ.
“What I have seen in both of those situations is how peaceful and calm people are who already have their testimonies strengthened,” Koon said. “At that moment, when it happens, they’re not being tested on ‘Is God real? Is this real? Is that real? Is this OK?’ They already know.
"At that point, they’re already finding comfort. ... Already they had a strength there that you just can’t explain. It’s there and it’s just something that I’ve stood back and observed. I’ve seen how there’s just such a presence of Heavenly Father there taking care of things when people can’t take care of them on their own.”