LITTLETON, Colo. (CBS4) – It’s been nearly 22 years since retired Columbine High School principal, Frank DeAngelis, experienced the unthinkable.

“One of the most difficult things I had to do is when the grief counselor came into me and said, ‘Frank you need to take these remaining families and tell them there’s a good chance their family members lost their lives in your school and… excuse me,” DeAngelis said choking up. “That was something I was never prepared for.”

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(credit: CBS)

Through counseling and family support, DeAngelis eventually found a way to cope and heal, but never forgot.

“I made a promise to my beloved 13, I recite their names every morning when I wake up, and I promised them I would never allow them to die in vain,” said DeAngelis.

He has devoted his life after Columbine to helping others across the nation who have experienced similar tragedies, and Monday’s shooting in Boulder hit close home.

“I saw all the law enforcement vehicles that were there, and I saw the SWAT team members that were there, and police cars that were there, and even though it’s in Boulder, Colorado, it took me right back to 62 Pierce Street in Littleton, Colorado,” he said.

Frank DeAngelis (credit: CBS)

At the time, DeAngelis couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep. He didn’t know how to cope. Then came a call from a friend, a Viet Nam Veteran.

“He said ‘Frank, I never got the help I needed when I came back from Nam,’ and he said ‘you’re going to find every reason not to get yourself help, but if you don’t help yourself, you’re not going to be able to help anyone else,’” he said.

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He learned that talking about his experience was an invaluable tool to help others cope. It helped him, too.

“It’s not that I’m an expert, but I think that when I talk to people and I say, ‘I know what you’re feeling,’ they understand what I’m saying,” he said. “Wherever you are right now, we were there 21 years ago or 22 years ago. We were there, but I’ll tell you right now the Columbine community is stronger than what it was after the tragedy and people come together.”

(Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)

DeAngelis not only offers outreach nationally, he’s also part of the Colorado Healing Fund, which works directly victims of mass casualty crimes in Colorado.

“Right now we’re reaching out, and we’re raising money for those families and the victims and we’re working with other organizations in Boulder to help them because there are so many needs that they don’t even know, and I just wish that when Columbine happened, we had an organization like that.”

Counseling is one of the primary ways DeAngelis was able to develop coping tools.He says the most important thing to come from it was a feeling of hope. Something he hopes Coloradans can hang onto.

“We can’t get to the point where we’re helpless and hopeless. We can’t give up and I never want us to get to a point in our lives where people are just saying ‘okay, how many this time?’ where we become desensitized and that worries me and we’ve got to say, ‘we can’t do this,’” said DeAngelis.

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Jamie Leary