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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — This week marks two months since Gabby Petito’s body was found near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, just about a week after she was reported missing by family members concerned that her fiancé returned home without her from a cross-country road trip.
The disappearance and death of Petito garnered international attention, as well as an outpouring of support for family members of the 22-year-old. On Tuesday, Petito’s family spoke exclusively with WFLA Now about the support they’ve received and what they’re doing to help grieve their beloved daughter.
“It’s hard. We’re still grieving and it’s going to be a process for a long time, I know that. I think starting the foundation is a way of us grieving and getting through this,” Nichole Schmidt said. “Some mornings I wake up, I want to save the world and I know I can’t do that but I’ll die trying. And that’s Gabby’s legacy.”
Schmidt joined WFLA Now from Long Island, where she and Petito’s stepfather Jim Schmidt live. Petito grew up in Long Island but moved to North Port about two years ago to live with her fiancé Brian Laundrie and his family.
Petito’s father Joe Petito and stepmother Tara Petito also live in Florida, and joined the conversation Tuesday from their home in Vero Beach.
“I cry every night. I stare at her pictures. So it’s been very difficult,” Tara Petito said of the grieving process. “I have a 13-year-old son who was very close with Gabby and he’s having a very tough time as well.”
Joe Petito said the family has tried to stay focused and put their energy toward the foundation they started in honor of their late daughter.
“That’s been our driving force as of late and it’s going to do a lot of good things,” he said. “Doing that, staying focused, researching – that’s what we’re doing in terms of trying to cope. Trying to make a difference.”
Since Gabby Petito’s death, social media users have flooded various platforms with messages about “Justice for Gabby.” Her parents on Tuesday said justice for them is looking forward and making the world a better place.
“If we can save just one person – that would be justice,” Tara Petito said. “Just going forward, that’s really what we would like to do. To save – or help her story get there so people know that we care.”
“If we can try and make that change, that’s what we’re trying to do here. And that’s justice for me – helping others,” Schmidt added. “It’s about the changes we can make. We can’t change the past but we can change the future.”
The Gabby Petito Foundation launched in late September, shortly after federal officials confirmed Petito’s death. Since the Petito and Schmidt families started posting about the foundation, people from all over the world have reached out to find out how they can get involved.
“We have the foundation website up… there’s a donation button there – you can definitely click that and donate… we are going to schedule more and more fundraising events for the foundation,” Joe Petito explained. “Remember, we’re only 30 days in. We’re still learning processes and stuff to make sure everything’s done the right way. We’re gonna continue trying to fill gaps and voids where help is needed. The more we learn, the more we can help. The more we can help, the better things will be.”
Schmidt said the family has been meeting with experts from all over the country to learn more about what changes should be made in the wake of their daughter’s death. Joe Petito said they’ve spoken with shelters, police, rescue teams, therapists and other professionals to find out what resources are needed most.
“Being able to fill that void with whatever we can do, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to help other organizations with resources and bring awareness to the issues,” he said.
The parents added that the foundation is also focusing on education.
“We are working with people out there that work with prevention education. Trying to get it into schools would be our number one goal,” Schmidt said. “From a very young age on, I think prevention education will help prevent us from needing all these shelters some day. We have to start while they’re young and – it’s not in schools, unfortunately. And it needs to be.”
She added that the family has discussed potential national alert systems for people in the 18 to 64 age range.
“There’s nothing for that age group. It would be just like the Amber Alert or the Silver Alert but it’s a different age group,” she said. “We hope to bring that kind of change to missing persons.”
Joe Petito noted that, while he’s been vocal and active on social media, he doesn’t want the spotlight on himself. He wants the spotlight on other people who are missing across the country.
“I want to see everyone have the same type of help that we received,” he said. “And if that takes me for that to push that out there asking for help to find missing people, by all means I’ll do that. I’d be doing a disservice to the people by not doing that. I want to make sure Gabby’s looking down saying, ‘I’m proud.'”