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This article was originally written by Jennifer Janus for our Alumni Newsletter, the Monarch Messenger.

Lori Haas was one of the first students to attend Saint Mary’s Catholic School. She started Saint Mary’s as a third-grade student in 1966 – Saint Mary’s inaugural year. She graduated eighth grade in 1972. 

Lori remembers that her mom was on a uniform committee to help pick out the uniforms the school would use when it opened, and Lori got to help out by modeling sample uniforms. She also remembers having nuns as her teachers for several years: Sister Rose Regina for third grade, Sister Patricia for fourth grade, Sister Virginia for fifth. 

“Sister Virginia was hysterical and fun,” Lori said. “She used to walk up and down between the aisles in the classroom and flick you on the back of the head if you were misbehaving.”

Lori comes from a big Catholic family – her five sisters and one brother all went to Saint Mary’s too. Their mom, Mary Chase Eck, was a founding member of Saint Mary’s Parish and School. 

Lori and her husband Channing have three children: Emily, Wyatt and Townley. Before her children were born, Lori worked as a Realtor, but stopped that to become a stay-at-home mom when Emily was born in 1987. 

She stayed at home for 10 years and she and Channing had just begun to serve as emergency foster parents – providing assistance for full-time foster parents who needed help because of extenuating circumstances – when something happened that changed the course of their lives. 

Their daughter Emily was a sophomore at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, when a gunman chained the doors and opened fire on students in Norris Hall, killing 32 and wounding 17. Emily was one of the wounded, a bullet grazing the back of her head.

Lori’s plan – to be a foster parent and consider returning to school to get a degree in sociology – changed course. Lori became an outspoken advocate of gun violence prevention and in 2009 became the state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and its sister organization, The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. Through an organizational merger, she is now advocacy manager for the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

For 15+ years, Lori has been a driving force behind gun violence prevention legislation in Virginia and across the U.S. How has her Catholic upbringing and her foundation at Saint Mary’s influenced her work?

“I think our faith informs what we do and how we do it – what level of fortitude you may or may not have,” Lori said. “My boss is Jewish. I recall one time on a Holy Thursday and we were working on a project that was crucial and critical — time sensitive — and it happened to be a year when the Catholic and Jewish calendars coincided. At five o’clock I said: ‘You should be in temple and I should be in church!’ and he said to me: ‘We are doing God’s work.’

“I just remember that – it has helped to fuel me and fill me up,” Lori said. 

Lori was nominated – and is one of eight chosen – as a YWCA Richmond’s Outstanding Women of the Year Honoree. The winners will be honored on May 8 at a Leadership Forum and award ceremony at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. 

Words her supporters use to describe Lori in her nomination for the award include “tireless,” “unwavering,” “passionate,” “focused,” “relentless,” “determined,” “persistent,” “inspiring” and “courageous.”

What motivates Lori to persevere with such tenacity even in the face of opposition and disappointment?

“What underpins my work is the moral obligation to save lives,” Lori said.

“I can recall in the days and weeks after the shooting being more grateful than words can ever ever ever describe that Emily lived when so many other children and staff were shot dead,” she said. “That, and the pain I saw – I just said to myself: ‘If I can save one family that pain, I don’t care how much work it’ll take.’

“It still drives me,” she said. “Firearms are the number one killer of children in the U.S. and in Virginia. It’s morally incomprehensible. Gun violence is preventable.” 

Right now the focus of her work is on educating public safety officials about the value of using risk orders, commonly known as red flags, to separate a person in crisis temporarily from his/her firearm.

Lori’s perseverance influences not only lawmakers and citizens – it’s evident in her children. In addition to Emily and younger son Wyatt, Lori and her husband are mom to retired Olympic swimmer Townley Haas. Townley specialized in freestyle events and won gold in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as part of the United States’ 4 x 200m freestyle relay team. 

Parenting Townley toward and through his Olympic journey has been humbling, thrilling and fun, Lori said. 

“It’s a true joy to watch your child grow and learn and set a goal, commit to the hard work to reach that goal, and set another goal – and commit to the hard work and reach that goal and continue,” she said.

She’s honored and humbled to receive the Outstanding Women of the Year Award. 

“I feel as if I’m the face and the mouthpiece for so many who work on this issue,” she said. “I’m honored to represent my colleagues and coworkers and the other volunteers who work on this.”

When asked what advice she’d give to Saint Mary’s students and recent graduates, she thought back to advice she gave her own children: “Be smart,” she said. “Use your brain and think things through.”

She also said: “Assess your opportunities based on the path and the direction of the people whom you admire.” 

Talk to them, she said: a favorite uncle, an older friend, a coach or mentor. What’d they do? How’d they get there?

“In a social media world, the spoken word is perhaps lost,” Lori said. “Conversations are always a good thing.”

Finally, when asked what her greatest achievement has been, Lori was quick to answer: “My family is my greatest achievement,” she said. “I am a mother first.”