Blindsided by their daughter’s death, then the legal system 

Sandy Phillips, like so many other Americans, had no idea how easy it is for one person to acquire the guns and ammunition to shoot 70 people, 12 fatally, in just a matter of seconds. After Sandy and Lonnie’s daughter, Jessi, was gunned down in the 2012 Aurora theater massacre, the couple established Survivors Empowered to help those impacted most by gun violence get the help they need in the immediate aftermath as well as down the road.

The Phillipses filed a lawsuit to hold accountable the arms dealer who sold 4,000 rounds of ammunition to the shooter. Colorado’s gun industry immunity laws prevented their lawsuit from proceeding, and forced the judge to order the Phillipses to pay $203,000 in legal fees to the arms dealer, bankrupting the couple. In 2023, Colorado passed Jessi’s Law, which repeals the state’s gun industry immunity law. The federal immunity law still exists.

“While we’re very honored to be named a ‘Champion for Change,’ we feel the real champions are the survivors who cope with the enormity of their loss,” says Sandy Phillips. “For many, coping starts with taking one breath, and then another, and another as their clocks tick through what seems like an eternity. I can think of no better contribution to honor a person stolen by violence than to champion love and honesty in everything the survivor does and says to others.”

Adds Lonnie Phillips, “Some survivors feel bad because they are not involved in the gun violence prevention movement or because they need to back away from the work for a while. First and foremost, take care of yourself and your family. Sadly, this work will be here if or when you are ready to tackle it.”  Notes Survivors Empowered Executive Director Penny Okamoto, “Our job is to help gun violence survivors through the worst time of their lives. Often before healing begins, survivors struggle to take a breath, fight through the shock and horror, and get through even a few excruciatingly painful minutes at a time. From the earliest minutes of trauma, some survivors completely shut down emotionally; others jump into activism.” 

A Note from Sandy and Lonnie Phillips
We all know life can be fragile. Right-side-up can turn upside down in the blink of an eye. We know it all too well. Life was good, our family was healthy, the world was okay. Then, we learned our daughter was killed in a theater shooting by a lone gunman. So random. So unthinkable. Yet so real. From that night in 2012 on, our lives were forever changed. Overwhelmed with grief and shock, we ultimately navigated our way through those terrible times by staying focused on one light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

That light became Survivors Empowered, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to helping others heal through what they had experienced; then in turn help others. As gun violence continues to mount in this country, the need has never been greater.

We are extremely gratified and humbled by the CNN Champions for Change award. But, we’re just one part of a much larger group of champions—all those who survive and heal through an unimaginable tragedy. 

Please help us help them, so they can help others.

With deep and heartfelt thanks,


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If you prefer to send a check please make it payable to:

Survivors Empowered
c/o John Morse, CPA
7900 E Union Avenue Ste 1100
Denver CO 80237




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