First grade teacher Victoria Soto was very much the person seen in the many photographs circulating the Internet and in the news: always in good cheer and full of passion for the things she loved.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher recently wrote a Facebook posting, “In my free time I love to spend time with my black lab, Roxie,” she wrote. “I love spending time with my brother, sisters and cousins. I love to spend time reading books on the beach soaking up the sun. I also love flamingos and the New York Yankees.”
Numerous Facebook postings, media reports and comments made to The Star describe a much-loved woman. Hundreds turned out for a memorial service held in her honor Saturday night at Stratford Town Hall.
People gathered earlier than the 7 p.m. start time, and as the candlelight vigil progressed the crowd grew ever larger.
Childhood friends of Soto, Victoria Ruiz and Louis Sanchez, embraced each other prior to the service. They fought back tears as they recalled their former classmate and spoke fondly of the time they spent growing up together in the same working class neighborhood in Stratford.
“I will always remember her being my friend,” Ruiz said. “We were childhood best friends. We grew up together and I’ll miss her.”
They went to the same schools, attended the same social functions and shared similar dreams.
Donna Soto, mother of Victoria, hugged both Ruiz and Sanchez, offering the young man and woman her deepest condolences. She spent much of the evening expressing gratitude and offering condolences to her daughter’s friends, even as she received condolences in return.
Victoria’s younger sister, Jillian Soto, addressing the crowd during the vigil Saturday night, smiled as she spoke, haltingly at first and then with greater confidence.
“Victoria truly is a hero and I’m very proud to say that she is my sister,” said Jillian. “We definitely lost an amazing person who died doing what she loved, protecting the kids that meant the world to her.”
She continued, “And they’ll be able to say that they’re here today because she sacrificed her life so that they could live another day.”
Victoria’s sacrifice in protecting her students did more than simply touch family and friends. She has become an inspiration to others.
Jessica Zrallack no longer lives in Stratford, she said, but she has a 7-year-old daughter who attends school in a neighboring town. Soto’s actions have left her awed and she can’t help but praise the young teacher.
“She’s a hero. A real hero,” Zrallack said.
Zrallack said she needed to come to the vigil to pay her respects to the “hero” she attended Stratford High School with.
While Zrallack concedes the two were not friends, she still felt compelled to attend the vigil so she could offer support to both Soto’s family and their community, of which she said she was proud to have been a part.
“Once from Stratford, always from Stratford,” she said.
Mayor John A. Harkins briefly addressed those at the vigil. “You have a teacher who cared more about her students than herself,” said Harkins. “That speaks volumes to her character, and her commitment and dedication.”
Victoria Soto’s cousin, Jim Wiltsie, a police officer in nearby Fairfield, earlier told ABC news about the details of her actions, how they were informed that Soto was attempting to get her students into a closet when the gunman entered the room.
“She was trying to shield them, getting her children into a closet and protect them from harm. And by doing that, put herself between the gunman and the children, and that is when she was tragically shot and killed.”
“In our eyes, she’s a hero,” Wiltsie told ABC News. “She lost her life doing what she loved. She loved her kids. Her goal in life was to be a teacher and to mold young minds.”
Donna Soto would later speak on CNN about her daughter. “I would like everyone to know that she was a beautiful, beautiful young lady who had such a passion for teaching and life and especially for her family,” she said.
During the same interview on CNN, Carlos Soto spoke of the outpouring of support from the Stratford community during the memorial service. “I’m just so thankful to know that everyone in Stratford has been touched by her life and came here to celebrate her life,” he said.
Soto’s obituary reads that while teaching first grade at Sandy Hook Elementary, she was also studying for a master’s degree in special education at Southern Connecticut State University.
She had earned a degree in elementary education and history at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Soto not only loved her family and friends, reads the obituary, but she left behind her dog, Roxie, who waited for her to come home every day.
Soto had been in her fifth year of teaching at Sandy Hook Elementary School.