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Teenage church shooting survivor uses tragedy to make change

"This is kind of the most important cause in my life, and I can't see myself giving up now."

Ten years ago Friday, a gunman stormed into Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in West Knoxville.

He opened fire and killed two people.

One of the youngest survivors was only seven years old.

Now at 17, she's using the trauma she faced to advocate for gun control, school safety, and acceptance.

Her name is Zoe Brookshire-Risley, and as a child, she witnessed what many people can't even imagine.

"I think after the first gunshot, so much was happening and I had no idea what was going on."

On July 27, 2008, a man came in to her church and started shooting.

Two people died, several were wounded.

Everything about that day sill haunts her.

"That day I saw kind of the worst of what a person could do," said Zoe.

She then grew up watching more shootings unfold on TV across the country.

The one that hit hardest happened this February.

It was the mass casualty shooting that killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Zoe spoke at a vigil for those victims at her church in February, inspired by the surviving students.

"I'd never really spoken publicly about the shooting before," said Zoe. "Seeing other people who had just gone through something horrific turn around and mobilize and turn their pain into action was really empowering."

That's when she took action.

Zoe lead the charge for Knoxville's March for our Lives earlier this year.

About 1,000 people came to UT's campus to march for a safer America.

"Seeing all of those people who were so willing to come out and show their support and express their feelings was incredible," said Zoe. "All of these people who wanted change."

She continues to speak publicly about her experience.

"We've all seen Zoe with a megaphone," said Rev. Chris Buice wiht Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. "She's the master of the megaphone."

She pulled out the megaphone on National School Walkout day on April 20.

Zoe planned the rally for West High School, and her classmates took action.

"Here's the link to go register to vote, and you see like all these people pull out their phones, so that was really beautiful," said Zoe.

"That's Zoe in her full glory," said Buice.

The senior minister at the church, Buice has watched Zoe's journey in activism.

He says he can see the changes she's making.

"I have noticed it, people are more open about speaking out," said Buice. "I think there's a lot more courage to speak out."

While she still struggles with trauma and PTSD, Zoe said she knows she has to share her story.

Courage and action, gained from loss.

Zoe is going to college in Ohio this fall where she plans to continue her work in activism.

"This is kind of the most important cause in my life and I can't see myself giving up now."

The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church is holding a 10 year anniversary service Sunday morning at 11.

Buice said while the memory of this event is important, Sunday will mark the beginning of a new chapter.

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