Audrey Bernstein was never an activist. Quiet, smart and hard-working, the Staples High School sophomore dedicated herself to the school paper Inklings (she’s the features editor) and the tennis team.
Classmate and friend Kaela Dockray — like Audrey, a native Westporter — was similar. She’s Inklings’ sports editor, and plays field hockey.
Then came Parkland.
The school massacre in Florida affected Audrey deeply. She had a hard time going to school.
Her US History Honors teacher, Cathy Schager, told her, “If you feel anxious about something, advocate for it.”
When Staples suffered its own near-tragedy — a student was overheard making threats, and had an assault rifle at home — Audrey was rocked again.
“I realized then I had to do something,” she recalls. “And I had to do it now.”
The Parkland shooting did not hit Kaela as hard. But the Staples incident made her realize that the potential for tragedy was real.
As she thought about how the Florida students reacted, she realized she needed to do something too.
A few days later, Audrey and Kaela heard that Delaney Tarr and Sarah Chadwick — 2 Parkland survivors — would be speaking at an International Women’s Day event in New York.
On the spur of the moment, they headed to the city.
“We figured there would be thousands of people,” Kaela says. “There were like 40.”
Delaney and Sarah told their stories. They urged young people to join the gun reform conversation.
Kaela and Audrey were captivated. They wanted to speak personally with the Parkland girls, but journalists swarmed them first.
After 30 minutes of waiting the Westporters gave up, and left.
But — in what Audrey calls “fate” — Sarah and Delaney soon walked right past them.
“We both started crying,” Kaela says. “We idolized them.”
The Staples students told their Parkland counterparts how much their stories meant. Audrey said, “You’re the main reason I get up and go to school.”
To their surprise, Audrey and Kaela found that Sarah and Delaney were just “normal teenagers.” The Floridians asked to take the Westporters’ picture for their own Instagrams — and then followed them on social media.
“They told us that we’re the future leaders,” Kaela says. “They kept saying that they’re proud of us.”
From left: Parkland survivors Sarah Chadwick and Delaney Tarr, with actress and activist Rowan Blanchard, join Staples High School sophomores Kaela Dockray and Audrey Bernstein in New York. The hashtag was the motto of the International Women’s Day event, emphasizing the power of women and the necessity for them to take charge.
So when plans were announced for a Staples walkout on March 14 — as part of a national movement in response to gun violence — she and Audrey knew they had to take part.
And they would not just help organize the event. They’d speak. Publicly.
“I have stage fright,” Audrey admits. “I’ve never done anything like this. But I was motivated by their pride in us. I had to get over my fear, and use my voice.”
“I don’t speak in class,” Kaela adds. “And now I was going to speak in front of 1,000 people?”
Both did — with passion and poise.
Their speech emphasized that young people have the most crucial voice in the school/gun debate. The reason: It affects them the most.
They also noted the importance of giving voice to beliefs — no matter how hard it might be.
A portion of the large crowd in the Staples High School fieldhouse. (Photo/Charlie Colasurdo, courtesy of Inklings)
Feedback was fast, and positive. “Random people stopped me in the hall, and thanked me,” Kaela says.
“I can’t believe you did that!” friends and family told Audrey.
Shaking her head in wonder, she says, “I don’t know how I did that myself!”
The girls are not stopping there. This Saturday they head to Washington, DC to join the “March For Our Lives” rally.
And they’ve started an Instagram page, focusing on advocacy. You can follow Audrey and Kaela there: @StudentsStaySafe.
You can also follow them as they continue down the new and exciting path they’ve discovered: political activists.
Westport and America: The future is not in good hands.
It’s in great hands.