Dylan Hockley would have been in eighth grade now if he hadn’t been among the 20 children and six staff members killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. He was 6 years old. He sometimes struggled to communicate because of his autism, but his spirit soared.
He would have been around the same age as the kids who gathered at Hermosa Valley School in Hermosa Beach on Tuesday to listen to his mother, Nicole, promote a message of inclusion and encouragement in the hope fewer parents will endure the pain she and too many other parents live with every day.
The eighth-graders who sat in a semi-circle in front of her are participating in a program called “Start with Hello,” one of many initiatives created by Sandy Hook Promise, an organization she co-founded. The goal is to persuade kids to offer a kind word to a classmate instead of a taunt, to draw outsiders into a circle of activity instead of shutting them out and sparking resentment that might build up and lead them to act out violently.
The Kings on Tuesday added their support to Sandy Hook Promise’s mission by giving the organization a check for $360,000 that will be used to train educators and kids in middle and high schools in the L.A., Torrance and Conejo Valley Unified School Districts to identify and get help for at-risk kids. That initiative is called “Know the Signs,” and the Kings made a three-year commitment to help.
“Dylan would be in eighth grade, had he survived. But he didn’t,” Hockley told an attentive audience. “And it’s through his legacy and ongoing support of the L.A. Kings as well that help give you the tools to help create the change that you want to be.”
The “Know the Signs” program isn’t politically partisan. Nor is the “Start with Hello” program, which was implemented in more than 12,000 schools nationwide this week. “It’s a kind message,” said Kelly Cheeseman, the Kings’ chief operating officer. “It has an impact on the bottom end of the scale. It’s not about the guns. It’s about kindness in that moment.
“We did not want to get involved in the political conversation. That is not our place. But we do want to make an impact and that’s at the core of who we are as an organization. It’s everything that we’re about. We want to win hockey games and we want to win Stanley Cups, but if we can have an impact in our community, that goes a long way.”
Many Kings players and executives live in the South Bay and those who are parents send their kids to local schools. Jennifer Pope, the Kings’ vice president of community relations and team services, has two kids in school, a son who’s 7 and a daughter who’s 4. Pope cried as she listened to Hockley talk about Dylan and about Sandy Hook Promise. “Honestly, they’re the perfect partner,” Pope said. “They focus on kids and they focus on trying to recognize the signs before anything happens. So, anything we could do to help that cause and move that message forward, we’re in.”
Kings defenseman Derek Forbort is the son of teachers: His mom, Mary, teaches kindergarten and his father, Keith, teaches fourth grade, both in Duluth, Minn. A news bulletin about a shooting in or near a school always catches his attention. “As we’ve seen, it can happen anywhere. I know it’s something they worry about and I worry about too,” he said. “Making schools a safer place to learn and play is extremely important to me.”
Where to begin? “We know that in schools everywhere there are kids that are feeling alone. There are kids that are feeling invisible and isolated,” Hockley said. “There are signs and signals that people give off before they commit acts of violence or self-harm, and social isolation is a long lead indicator of somebody who could be at risk in the future. Creating those early connections is important, so we created this program to go to schools.”
It’s easy to be skeptical that something as small as a greeting could change a life. “Sometimes just being seen or felt to be connected or validated, that can cause a person to make a very different decision in what happens next in their life. It does actually make a huge difference,” Hockley said. “Especially in incidents of self-harm, someone who’s considering that ‘No one will notice me if I’m gone,’ or wants to retaliate to feel connected to a community, it will make you have a different perspective on life.”
Like most NHL teams, the Kings are active in their community. Last year, after 12 people were shot to death in a bar in Thousand Oaks, players held placards bearing the word ENOUGH. Two years ago, the Kings funded the purchase of trauma kits for South Bay school classrooms and the training for teachers to use them. “I think we’ve always said that if they are the dustiest bags in each classroom that’s a really good thing,” Cheeseman said. “I think this initiative should lead to that, and that’s our goal.”
It’s a goal everyone can celebrate. “There are kids, we don’t know what’s going on in their minds but if another kid says hello to him and it changes his life, you never know,” club President Luc Robitaille said. “You’ll never know. That’s the idea.”