HARTFORD, Conn.Josephine Gay's mother could not be with her in her final, harrowing minutes inside Sandy Hook Elementary School. She struggles with it every day, but she has taken comfort from learning that Josephine's aide wrapped her arms and body around her and other children, shielding them from the horror of a rampaging gunman.
The dying actions of Josephine's behavioral therapist, Rachel D'Avino, were hardly surprising to the girl's mother. D'Avino and other educators had close bonds with 7-year-old Josephine, who was autistic and could not speak.
"She protected them and provided them with comfort and love when they really needed it," Michele Gay said in an interview. "I can't say enough about the people that worked with Joey. They were amazing."
Despite the devotion of Josephine's aides, the family was constantly looking for resources to keep up the care they wanted. In her memory, Michele and Bob Gay have set up "Joey's Fund" through the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism to help other families raising children with autism.
A social and affectionate child who loved Barbie dolls and the color purple, Josephine was in many ways the center of her family. It took months or years of work to teach her skills such as walking and eating that came easily to her two older sisters. While her father worked long hours to pay for her therapy, her mother stayed home to research treatments, deal with insurance companies and work with the support team at her school.
"Sadly, health insurance covered little of her therapy, and the school system had very few resources to offer us," Michele Gay said. "We are not exceptional. We are like any other family who just won't give up on their child or their sister whether they are typical or special needs."
Josephine was among 20 first-graders killed on Dec. 14 when a gunman shot his way into the school in Newtown and opened fire with a military-style semi-automatic rifle. The shooter, Adam Lanza, killed his mother before carrying out the massacre in which he also killed six women, including D'Avino, and then committed suicide.
Lanza was said to have had Asperger's syndrome, an autism-like disorder that is not associated with violence. It is not known whether he had other mental health issues. Some autism experts and advocacy groups have complained that Asperger's is being unfairly blamed for the shootings, and say people with the disorder are much more likely to be victims of bullying and violence.
Michele Gay, 40, and her husband, Bob, 52, told the AP that they are not concerned about the tragedy generating stigma for autism.
"You've got to give people some credit. We have a pretty educated population and, for that matter, a lot of people have experience with autism in their families," Michele Gay said. "The numbers are staggering. If not in their family, they know somebody who has autism."
Another autistic child at Sandy Hook, 6-year-old Dylan Hockley, died in the arms of his special education teacher in another classroom. His parents have set up a memorial fund of their own to help children with autism and special needs.
Josephine, who had a nervous system disorder and could not talk, found plenty of ways to communicate with her classmates. She would take their hands and show them things. She would point. She would laugh and smile and play games. While she worked hard at therapy sessions after school and on weekends, her parents pushed for her to be integrated into a typical classroom, and they say her classmates made all the difference.
D'Avino, 29, had been working one-on-one with Josephine for only a few weeks, but they established a tight bond. D'Avino was with Josephine at all times, unpacking her backpack in the morning, taking her to the bathroom and helping her pick out library books.
"They gave everything they had and they really, really loved her," Michele Gay said of her daughter's aides. "And she loved them."
Bob Gay, who works for a consulting firm that focuses on higher education, said they decided to create Joey's Fund within a couple days of the tragedy as people asked how they could help. So far it has collected more than $80,000 from nearly 1,000 donors representing 40 states and four countries.
For the family, the fund is a way of dealing with their pain.
"If I didn't believe in God it would be really difficult to go on and handle this because I miss her," Bob Gay said. "I can still feel her hug when I'd get home at night."
The couple said they are better people for having had Josephine in their lives.
"She was just an extraordinary gift to our family," Michele Gay said. "She challenged us to do better and to love more every day. She taught us to be very patient and persistent. She was absolutely brimming with God's love, and she shared it with everyone."