Photo: George Burns
When I meet Francine and David Wheeler and their 10-year-old son, Nate, at my home in Santa Barbara, California, where they've come for a taping of Super Soul Sunday, our hellos quickly give way to hugs. "We call that the Newtown handshake," David tells me. Only hugs will do now for the families and community still reeling from the tragedy that shook the world one year ago, when, on the morning of December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old gunman carried an array of semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and fatally shot 20 first-graders and six teachers and administrators before turning a gun on himself. One of those first-graders was Francine and David's 6-year-old son, Ben.
Since then, Francine and David—who moved to Newtown from Queens, New York, in 2007 for the "good public schools and a yard where our sons could run around and be safe"—have become advocates for what they call "common-sense gun responsibility reforms." Working with Sandy Hook Promise, a group dedicated to creating a new national dialogue around gun violence, mental health, school safety, and community, Francine and David have spoken before state legislators, members of Congress, even the president of the United States, and with unfailing candor have brought the most stolid lawmakers to tears. President Obama was so impressed that, after the Wheelers and other Sandy Hook families traveled to Washington last April to lobby on behalf of the proposed expanded-background-check amendment, he asked that Francine deliver his weekly presidential address; she is the first ordinary citizen so honored since Obama took office.
Indeed, the Wheelers feel blessed to have received many extraordinary and unexpected gestures of support: the dedication of the state trooper who protected them from the media onslaught that followed the tragedy and whose constant, calming presence earned him the nickname "Supertrooper Scott"; the renaming of the street in Queens where they lived when Ben was born to "Benjamin Wheeler Place"; the generosity of the 50 friends and neighbors who showed up one Saturday in early fall to plant trees and landscape their property. Buoyed by such kindness, Francine, a music teacher and singer, and David, a graphic designer, remain committed to seeing that Sandy Hook be remembered not for tragedy but as the place where real change began.
We've talked a lot in these pages about spirituality and how to live a life with courage and in your truth—and I'm here to tell you, these two walk the talk. I wanted to be in their presence, and to hear their story and share it with you, because this I know for sure: They are carriers of the light. So as Nate got cozy inside, immersed in his Skylanders books, his parents and I sat in my backyard under a canopy of eucalyptus trees and talked about Ben, the power of community, and the guiding force that we could all use a lot more of: love.
Read Oprah's interview with the Wheelers
We Hear You!