"I would have married him that night on the beach," Debbi Hixon said as she recalled how she met her late husband Chris in 1988.
He had driven in from out-of-state for his Navy friend's wedding, and Debbi was in the bridal party. They hit it off, spending the next few days getting to know each other and the next six months as pen pals while he deployed.
They married, had a family and overcame the obstacles all military and veteran families face, while still focusing on their sons and life together.
And then, the unthinkable happened. Chris, 49, was killed in February 2018 in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, as he tried to protect students from the shooter. His heroic response came as no surprise to those who knew him. "It's engraved in you. To run in there thinking he could do something was his military training," Debbi said.
It’s been two years since the shooting, and Debbi and her sons are still active in the community. A teacher and volunteer through programs such as Harvest Drive and the Rotary Club, Debbi has also decided to run for a countywide school board seat.
"The community has really supported every crazy thing I decide to try," she said. "Any adventure I do, they are supporting me."
Her adventures have included starting an athletic scholarship in her late husband's name and a 5K Memorial Run, which had more than 800 participants last year. She also advocates for more responsible gun safety.
"It's really nice to see that there are good things in the world even when you think everything is bad," Debbi said. And her local community has been taking the time to show her the good. From bringing over dinner to just sitting around chatting, she said she feels the community has really embraced her family and the others who were affected by the 2018 tragedy.
Most recently, Debbi and her son Corey were the 21st recipients of the Military Makeover with Montel Williams to remodel their home. Nominated by the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, the timing couldn't have been more perfect because Debbi had been struggling to get an estimate on home renovations when she learned about the show.
In July, Williams surprised Debbi during a school event, informing her that her family had been chosen. Later that fall, things got moving.
A day of shopping in California, almost two weeks in a hotel while renovations were completed, and a community-wide effort resulted in the transformation of her home.
"I was a little worried that they would change it too much, and it wouldn't feel like 'our' house anymore," Debbi said. "Chris and I lived in this house for almost 30 years together. But they did a really good job."
More than having her house redone, the outpouring of support two years after their lives changed forever is what Debbi finds the most comforting. It was a beautiful way of bringing a shattered community together, she said.
"I met neighbors I had never met before because they were so excited to be a part of what was going on," she said.
Because of who Chris was and the way he served his community, people wanted to be a part of this project, she explained. "It isn't just that we got a new house -- we got a new life."
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