PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — Last February, Matt Deitsch was living his dream studying at a California university. His brother, Ryan, was about to graduate from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and head to college, the natural next step for the middle child from a family in the affluent suburb of Parkland.
Since the shooting, the brothers have put college on hold and moved into the national spotlight as they helped organize March For Our Lives, sparking a national conversation about gun control. They've crisscrossed the country with their younger sister Sam, speaking about assault rifles bans and universal background checks and visiting college campuses to register young voters.
Matt, now 21, flew to South Africa to accept the International Children's Peace Prize. He and younger brother Ryan worked with "Avengers" actor Mark Ruffalo to write a public service announcement encouraging youth to vote.
"I don't think anyone can truly explain the political journey we've been thrust onto. I feel like we have a better understanding of our nation's politics than most of our politicians" Ryan said.
Last Valentine's Day, Stoneman Douglas alumnus Matt was working with a startup T-shirt company that student Joaquin Oliver was going to model for three days later. Instead, Deitsch attended Oliver's funeral that Saturday.
Ryan, a senior at the time, was hiding in a closet in his journalism class and emerged to grab footage for the school newspaper.
Sam, then a freshman, lost a close friend: 14-year-old Jaime Guttenberg. She's spent the year in therapy and giving speeches about gun violence. She turns Sweet Sixteen on Thursday, the anniversary of the day her friend and 16 others died.
All three siblings found comfort in advocacy and one another.
Just hours after the shooting, the high school students became impossible to ignore — riding their bikes to TV interviews, trolling politicians on social media and rallying around the cry of “Never Again.” Gun-rights advocates also have emerged from Stoneman Douglas students, with Kyle Kashuv the most prominent.
Almost overnight, students like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg became household names. Behind the scenes, more than a dozen others — among them the three red-headed Deitsch siblings — worked to launch what would become a longer term grassroots campaign.
Matt helped write many of the talking points "so that we could counterpunch what was being used against us which was incredibly more aggressive than we could ever imagine."
In one of the organization's first real stabs at the National Rifle Association and politicians that support it — a live town hall with CNN — Ryan hammered Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, asking "Why do we have to march on Washington just to save innocent lives?"
These days, he helps to run the organization's content committee, making sure the message is on point whether it's a video or merchandising. He has deferred college for now, drawing a meager salary from March For Our Lives, saying he made more money as a waiter and food delivery driver.
Matt, director of strategy, runs the day-to-day operations along with Jaclyn Corin.
"I work 110-plus hours a week. I've been on three national tours, around the country in the last 10 months. I've been to 41 states plus DC. ... This work doesn't stop," he said.
Days after the shooting, Ryan and Sam headed to Tallahassee with busloads of students to push state lawmakers for gun reform. Discouraged that Florida lawmakers voted not to consider a proposed ban on assault rifles, they organized a trip to Washington with a handful of students, including Delaney Tarr and Alex Wind. They met with 200 lawmakers in two days.
The brother said the meetings were disappointing: Lawmakers made excuses, misquoted the constitution and treated them coldly.
"If they had pretended to be competent and that they were fighting for our lives, that they were working to protect us, March For Our Lives would have never existed. We would have hit the brakes," Matt said.
The students had glimpsed the inner workings of the Legislature and decided it wasn't working for them.
"That started the fire in our eyes on a whole other level," Matt said.
The Deitsch siblings express anger as they retell their story during a recent interview in their home. But they also frequently burst into laughter. It's their panacea.
When Sam is overcome by grief and missing her friend, the brothers pull out silly memes from social media to coax a smile. She says they've gotten closer since the shooting. They laugh about counterprotester antics and bond over what being at the epicenter of a movement is like.
"This year has been really, really hard for me and my mental health, and when I think how I have to live for (Jaime) ... ," Sam said, her voice trailing off in tears.
Looking ahead, March For Our Lives is already focusing on the next election. The group has said it is encouraged by impressive youth turnout in midterm elections and the growth of nearly 100 local chapters around the country. This year's goal is to find creative ways to engage with disinterested youth.
"We had hundreds of thousands of students stand up and become politically active for the first time in their lives," Matt said. "And every day there's more of us."