Daughter of Sandy Hook Victim Partners With South Jersey Mental Health Nonprofit

Deptford's Maura Schwartz pays tribute to her mother's sacrifice.

Mary Joy Sherlach lived for the kids. A school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Mary did what her daughter Maura Schwartz says was utterly in keeping with her character when a gunman opened fire at her school in December 2012: She ran toward the gunfire, not away from it.

That was the kind of teacher — and mother — Mary was: totally engaged on behalf of the children she loved. And now Maura is making sure her mother’s passion won’t be forgotten.

Last week, Maura stood at a podium in a banquet room at the Valleybrook Country Club in Gloucester Township, N.J., and spoke about the day her mother died, describing her final act of heroism. She also described a terrific mom — an easy and empathetic confidante for her and her sister, Katy.

When Maura was growing up, Mary’s passion about the mental well-being of children and adolescents she worked with permeated their home life. After her mother died, Maura recognized not only their own loss, but that of so many children whose lives her mother would have touched. And it was especially ironic that Mary died at the hands of a troubled adolescent, who, Maura noted, had himself been lacking in mental health care resources that he obviously sorely needed.

The audience — attendees of the annual meeting of the Mental Health Association in Southwestern New Jersey — was filled with people who were intimately familiar with the issues Maura spoke of, whether from personal experience of mental illness or as providers of services or social workers, so it was with much gratitude that they learned of her decision to partner with the organization to raise funds in her late mother’s name.

Mary’s Fund was originally started in Connecticut by friends and family to raise money for mental health causes, an effort that Mary would have valued. Maura and her husband Eric (left, in a photo from the Mary’s Fund Facebook page), who live in Deptford, N.J., have now created a New Jersey chapter whose proceeds will go to the Mental Health Association in Southwestern New Jersey’s various programs and initiatives, which serve Camden, Burlington and Gloucester counties. This includes programs like Being There, a classroom presentation for high school and college students in which a young person with a mental illness talks to the kids about their experience, and Camden Work Experience, Rehabilitation & Collaborative Services, which offers counseling, workshops, field trips and part-time employment possibilities to teens and young adults living with mental illness.

After her speech, Maura said she finds the whole process healing, even when she has to tell the story of her mother’s death in graphic detail at speaking engagements.

“It shows me how far I’ve come,” she says of these public appearances. And indeed, after the event, she handled the steady stream of people asking for more information about the fund like a seasoned pro: friendly, kind, but focused on her goal. As people keep telling her, her mother would be proud.

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