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In February 2018, Aaron Stark was watching the news with his wife and teenage daughter. A gunman had walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and killed 17 people.
Aaron found himself having the same conversation with his family that so many of us were having with ours.
His then-17-year-old daughter Katie couldn't comprehend how someone was capable of committing such a heinous act of violence. Aaron, a 39-year-old father of four, tried to explain. After all, he understood more than most people how something like this could happen.
'A Stephen King Novel'
Aaron grew up in Denver, Colorado, where he still lives. He likens his childhood to an eerie Stephen King novel. His father was physically abusive toward him, his brother and especially, his mother.
"He was a Vietnam vet, and evidently, it changed him when he came back," Aaron says. "I never knew him beforehand. I only knew the after effect. But the dad I knew was a monster."
Aaron remembers the frequent nights he had to spend in domestic violence shelters in the first five years of his life. His mother eventually left his father and remarried — but things didn’t get better.
"We went from living in a Stephen King novel to getting with my stepdad and moving to like, a Scarface movie, with lots of crack cocaine and theft," Aaron says.
Aaron says he was repeatedly woken up in the middle of the night to escape to a different home because his family was constantly fleeing authorities or shady characters. And although he kept changing schools, some things remained the same.
"Every school I went to it seemed like another set of bullies," Aaron remembers. "I was a fat kid. I was smelly. I was socially inept. I was just a big comic book fan back in times when comic books were actively damaging to your coolness."
Aaron's love for comic books did help him make a close friend, Mike Stacey, who's now a 36-year-old web developer in Denver.
"He and I can sit down and literally just talk forever," Mike says. "That’s why we became friends, and that's why we stayed friends."
'Treated Like A Person'
They bonded with another friend named Amber Schneider. She attended the same arts school as Mike, where she never quite felt like she fit in.
"The group accepted me and drew me into the pack," Amber says. "When you feel accepted by a group of people, they become your tribe."
Outside of that tribe, Aaron’s world was still chaotic. By the time he was a young teen, he was constantly getting into physical and verbal fights with his family members.
"When you get told you're worthless all the time and you get told that you're nothing, you’re going to believe it," Aaron says.
He dropped out of high school his sophomore year. His parents ignored his cries for help, and when he tried to reach out to social services, he couldn’t find relief there either.
"I decided that I was going to scream out [and] people were going to hear me," Aaron says. "I was going to make them listen now."
Desperate, Aaron asked a drug dealer he knew to help him get a gun. He had a plan. He was going to either attack his school or the food court at the mall down the street.
"It wasn't directed at the people themselves," Aaron says. "If it was directed at anybody, it would be directed at my parents. I wouldn't have attacked them. It would have been so they could see what monster they created."
Before Aaron got his hands on a gun, he had his usual routine to hang out with his friend Mike. Although Mike didn't know anything about Aaron's plans, he sensed his friend was struggling. That's when he sat him down, gave him a meal and offered to let Aaron stay over at his house until he felt better. Aaron ended up spending the next five days with Mike. He never got that gun.
"Honestly, the most transformative thing was being treated like a person when I didn't even feel like I was a human," Aaron says. "That changed my whole world."
That wasn’t the last time Aaron had disturbing thoughts. One night, he got ahold of several prescription pills and planned to overdose. It was his birthday. Again, his friends had no idea what he was planning, but when Amber heard Aaron was in a dark place, she called him and invited him to a small get-together.
"It was a surprise party for my birthday. I was totally not expecting it," Aaron says. "Instead of going home and committing suicide, I sat in a house with people that loved me, having one of the best nights I’ve ever had in my life."
Both Amber and Mike say whatever they did for Aaron never felt profound. It just felt like the right thing to do for a friend.
But when Aaron wrote a piece for the Washington Post 20 years later, telling the story of how those simple acts of friendship helped him get through the most difficult moments of his life, they finally understood.
"I remember my breath catching in the back of my throat," Amber says. "That event could’ve very much not happened. What then?"
Since the Post article, thousands of people have reached out to Aaron through Facebook to share their own stories. He tries to respond to all of them because he wants to show the same kindness his own friends showed him.
“We might be actually able to make some real change and make some real impact," Aaron says. "Try to stop pushing out the outcast and give love to the people that we think deserve it the least cause they need it the most."
This segment aired on April 22, 2019.
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