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Jewish victim of Jan. 8 shooting heals — and speaks out

Suzi Hileman displays some of the hundreds of cards and letters she's received from well-wishers around the world. (Sheila Wilensky)

Three bullets ripped through Suzi Hileman’s body during the Jan. 8 shooting rampage that killed her 9-year-old neighbor and friend Christina-Taylor Green, and wounded 12 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Hileman, who is Jewish, told the AJP, “I choose to look forward. I’m thinking about what I can do when I wake up every morning and the sun is shining.”

Although the former social worker is still healing from her physical wounds – luckily, none of the bullets hit any vital organs — healing emotionally may take even longer.   However, says Hileman, 58, “I have a platform and a voice now. I found out that what I was doing was inter-generational mentoring.”

Hileman had planned that she and Christina would meet Giffords on Jan. 8 at the “Congress on Your Corner” at the northwest Safeway, have lunch together and get manicures.  Hileman recalls picking Christina up at her home that morning; her mother asked Christina to take her sweatshirt.  The next time Hileman saw that pink sweatshirt with a peace symbol on the front was after she came home from the hospital on Jan. 18; it was lying on the passenger seat of her car.

Christina will always be with her, says Hileman, noting that Christina was born on Sept. 11, 2001, and used to proudly ask people, “Did you know that I’m a symbol of America?”

Her friend was excited about meeting Giffords, and Hileman — in her mentoring role — told Christina that she could aspire to be a congresswoman.

There has been a lot of discussion about the need for more civility in American society since Jan. 8.

“You don’t have to agree with someone to connect. You don’t have to do it by spraying gunfire at a 9- year-old,” says Hileman, adding that one of the most moving signs she saw was at a memorial service for Christina. Held by an elementary school child, it read, “How sad Christina must be that someone didn’t know how to use his words to solve his problems.”

Christina has “the best parents on the planet,” says Hileman, noting that the night after the shooting, Christina’s father, John Green, called to help her husband, Bill, while she was at Tucson Medical Center.

That same compassion was present in Christina, she says.  “She was really special. She touched people. Now my little friend is dead and there is nobody on this planet who can tell me that happened for a reason. She’s dead and I have to do something with that.”

Calling herself  “a Jane Addams type of social worker who helped people get from point A to point B, who tried to help improve people’s lives,” Hileman says she is committed to making something good come out of this horrendous tragedy.

“Right now my number one job is to heal,” says Hileman, who has received bags of cards and letters from around the world, phone messages, and notes from well-wishers planting trees in Israel in Christina’s name. On Friday, Feb. 11, representatives of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona brought a Shabbat dinner to her home.

When President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama came to Tucson on Jan. 12 for the “Together We Thrive” event at the University of Arizona’s McKale Center, they visited Hileman in her hospital room. “Michelle Obama hugged me tightly and I started to cry,” says Hileman. “’Just cry it out, honey,’ she told me. ‘We’re not going anywhere.’  She’s the mother-in-chief. I’m crafting a letter to Michelle’s mother to compliment her on her parenting.”

What happened to her and Christina could have happened to anybody, says Hileman. “I don’t think I’m that special. There were other people in line waiting to meet Gabby.  We all need to give ourselves credit for what we do.”