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Community of hope

Tucsonans to honor Christina-Taylor Green, other Jan. 8 victims with Stars of HOPE

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Christina-Taylor Green could have graduated from Canyon del Oro High School this year, had she not died at the age of 9 in the 2011 Tucson mass shooting that also involved then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and 17 others.

In honor of Christina-Taylor's life and a commemoration of the ninth anniversary of the shooting, local schools are hosting an event on Friday, Jan. 10, in conjunction with Stars of HOPE, an international arts program that seeks to help communities heal after tragedy.

Amphitheater School District students, including three of Christina-Taylor's closest friends, will paint stars at Mesa Verde Elementary alongside Roxanna Green, Christina-Taylor's mother.

Stars of HOPE works at the intersection of mental health, art and disaster response. In the wake of tragedy, affected communities receive inspiring messages and stars painted by survivors of other tragedies. The hope is for the affected community to feel supported and inspired enough to paint their own stars which will, in turn, be passed on to others in need.

"I think it's amazing and I think my daughter would be very proud of everything they're doing, because she was always doing volunteer work and helping kids who were less fortunate," said Roxanna Green.

This is not the first time Stars of HOPE has interacted with the Green family; the same year as the Tucson shooting, a Star bearing a drawing of a butterfly by Christina-Taylor was sent to Japan after the 2011 tsunami ravaged the country.

"It's a privilege to be able to carry out Christina's legacy," said Jeff Parness, founder of Stars of HOPE. "I think the lesson we've learned from all the years we've been doing Stars of HOPE is that children have a limitless sense of optimism, and the messages they put on the Stars serve as a daily reminder that you're not alone."

Parness originally became involved with community healing after losing a friend in the 9/11 attacks in New York. He began Stars of HOPE's parent foundation, New York Says Thank You, in 2003. What was at first a national foundation grew into an international disaster relief movement. In 2007, Stars of HOPE began from this momentum, and now more than 240 communities in 26 countries have either painted or received the stars.

"It kept growing as communities wanted to paint stars in the aftermath of tornadoes or wildfires. Then people wanted to paint them in response to mass shootings, and survivor communities would paint Stars of Hope when the next tragedy happened," Parness said. "It just became this huge constellation of compassion."

When the Tucson shooting happened, New York Says Thank You was in the process of touring a 30-foot flag damaged in the 9/11 attacks to all 50 states to have Americans stitch it back together. Parness saw news updates from Tucson, and knew it was Stars of HOPE's next destination.

"I was watching television when Roxanna Green called in and said how her daughter was cognizant of the fact she was born on 9/11, and didn't want terrorists to claim her birthday, so she used to say she was born on a holiday," Parness said. "And that's why she was so committed to service; she ran for student council and she was meeting Gabby Giffords. And I'm listening to Roxanna, this courageous mother who just lost her daughter, and that's when I realized this young girl who I never knew represented everything we do."

Parness reached out the Green family, and shortly after, that same American flag flew at Christina-Taylor's funeral.

Now, Stars of HOPE is engaged in a "Hope Across America" tour where a bus travels through the country, hosting recovery and support events at multiple cities, including Tucson. The tour bus is covered with images of painted stars, and the faces of those who embody their message, known as "honorary bus drivers." Christina-Taylor is one such driver.

"My family and I know that she is looking down from heaven and is very pleased with this whole project," Roxanna said. "Anything inspirational, acts of kindness and gifts of hope, I think are very healing."

These kinds of events create a discernible impact in communities as well; according to a study by Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, those who participated in a Stars of HOPE event or saw their community become a "Community of Hope" felt calmer, more optimistic and more connected to others. While these positive emotions were occasionally connected with additional feelings of sadness, the majority of study participants strongly felt Stars of HOPE helps people recover emotionally from tragedy.

"Memorial efforts such as Stars of HOPE are focused on raising awareness and giving support to survivors and families of victims," said Pam Simon, a Giffords aide who was also wounded in the shooting. "Often when awareness of the profound effects of the aftermath of gun violence is raised then individuals choose to become involved in changing policy. Others choose to focus on support of those that experienced trauma. Gun violence in our culture has multi-faceted roots and as we strive to find answers we as a society need to look at mental illness, greater counseling support for youth, building stronger and more resilient communities as well as stronger gun safety legislation."

This memorial to Christina-Taylor leads up to Stars of HOPE's celebration of the 20th anniversary of 9/12, the day New York received an outpouring of international support after tragedy.

"I choose to think more about 9/12 than 9/11, because it showed the passion and kindness of humanity. We all became a Community of Hope that day. I'm committed to make sure we never lose that sense of community," Parness said. "Whether it's what happened in New York or in Tucson, at the end of the day, love is stronger than hate."

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