Like their high school peers across the country who are raising their voices against gun violence, the two principal organizers of the Modesto March For Our Lives on Saturday were born after the April 1999 Columbine High mass shooting in Littleton, Colo.
"We're the generation that has grown up with school shootings. It's always been our reality," said Beyer High junior Sophia Potochnik, sitting in her living room with Enochs junior Isabel Garcia.
While she doesn't live in fear, Potochnik said, it doesn't take much to bring to mind that her school, any school, could be next. "I remember one time last year when I was in a classroom and the door was locked and someone knocked, and I don't know why, but I was like, oh, my God, what if it's a school shooter? And it was just one of my classmates."
With the number of campus shootings increasing — 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine's Day, two students wounded and the gunman killed at Great Mills High in Maryland on Tuesday — "I think everyone's a little on edge right now," Potochnik said.
The day of the Maryland shooting, Garcia said, her mom called to tell her and her sixth-grade sister about it. "My sister asked how many had died. Just to hear my sister have to talk about that, it's unsettling."
Potochnik and Garcia are spearheading planned demonstrations at their schools on Friday, April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre. In Stanislaus County, 11 National School Walkout area events are open for online sign-ups: at Gregori, Davis, Beyer, Downey, Modesto, Enochs, Central Valley, Oakdale, Waterford and Turlock high schools and Roosevelt Junior High.
The walkouts are, of course, during school hours, prompting many people to say students are just using the issue as an excuse to ditch classes. And those skeptics have Potochnik and Garcia hopeful that students from all those schools, and many more, will turn out Saturday on their own time for a 1.7-mile march (a 10th of a mile for each life lost in Parkland) and a rally at Mancini Bowl in Graceada Park.
"That's why we wanted to organize this ourselves," Garcia said. "This is showing we are taking our own time, we're serious about this."
A March For Our Lives also will be held Saturday in Turlock, starting at 1 p.m. at the corner of Monte Vista Avenue and Geer Road, in front of California State University, Stanislaus.
The Modesto gathering begins in Graceada at 9:30 a.m., with the march at 10, followed by a rally back at the park. In no way is it just for students. Garcia and Potochnik said they hope teachers and other school employees, parents — anyone concerned about gun violence — will turn out.
"I’ll be marching right alongside them Saturday, and I am proud to teach a generation who may just save us all," said Tamra McCarthy, Enochs High English teacher and journalism adviser. "It is exciting to see students take part in the political process and have a strong voice in elevating the national conversation while framing it in a way that makes safety paramount."
Planning the Modesto march has been a major learning experience, the two juniors said.
They're sponsored by the Modesto Peace/Life Center (Sophia's late grandfather Rudy Potochnik, a Modesto real estate developer, was a member and a World War II conscientious objector), operating under its insurance and 501(c)(3) nonprofit certificate. They've navigated renting Mancini Bowl from the city, hiring police officers to provide security and getting portable restrooms for the day, they said.
"We’re showing we can organize, we can meet with the Police Department, we can meet with the city, we can rent huge spaces in Modesto and hire police officers and get sound permits," Potochnik said. "We’re capable of doing that."
Attending a meeting of the Central Valley Democratic Club recently, she received several donations, Potochnik said. But gun violence and school shootings are not partisan issues, she and Garcia said, and they hope to get a strong turnout across party lines. To help meet costs, there's a GoFundMe page for the Modesto March For Our Lives, with a fundraising goal of $1,500. As of midmorning Thursday, $550 had been raised.
Saturday's rally will include speakers, a presentation by Stella Beratlis, Modesto's poet laureate, and opportunities to write postcards to lawmakers and register to vote. Students at least 16 years old can preregister to be able to vote when they turn 18, the girls said.
What will people need to register? According to the California Secretary of State's voter registration page online, the application "asks for your driver license or California identification card number, or you can use the last four numbers on your Social Security card. If you do not have a driver license, California identification card or Social Security card, you may leave that space blank. Your county elections official will assign a number to you that will be used to identify you as a voter."
One of the messages of the March For Our Lives, Potochnik and Garcia said, is that school and other mass shootings are not just a mental health problem, as so many people try to paint them. "The problem is people who have issues with mental health can still obtain guns, it's so easy to get a gun," Potochnik said. "... A lot of people say, 'We need our guns to fight back against a tyrannical government in case that should happen.' The government has nuclear bombs — you think your bump stock is going to stop a nuclear bomb?"
Her mother, Maria Potochnik, added, "The discussion that always bothers me is people think it's all or nothing. It's not — it's sensible gun control, not 'We're going to take everything.' You don't give them to crazy people, you don't make them easy to get to when you're young. (We) should have waiting periods and all these different things — just make them so they're hard to get.
"You look at all the countries that have enacted it, it works. The stats are all right there."
A CNN story from earlier this month says that the U.S. makes up less than 5 percent of the world's population but holds 31 percent of global mass shooters.
Enochs teacher McCarthy said her biggest hope for the current youth movement is that it doesn’t lose momentum. "Teenagers are not convinced democracy works," she said. "The best way for them to experience a functioning democracy is by participating in it — and not becoming complacent.
"... I hope this movement is so visible that politicians cannot ignore it. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and all who stand with them in voice and in action to create positive change in common-sense gun reform, deserve to be heard. "