Not Just Surviving, but Thriving

Softball player Katrina Yuzefpolsky shares a message of hope for those affected by gun violence in America

Senior Katrina Yuzefpolsky and her teammates on the Tufts University softball team are dedicating their double-header at home this Saturday to raising awareness for the nonprofit organization Brady: United Against Gun Violence. Yuzefpolsky has first-hand experience with that issue.

Thriving at Tufts as a starter for the number 9-ranked Jumbos and excited to graduate in May, Yuzefpolsky is sharing her personal story publicly for the first time. By doing so, and by participating in events like Saturday’s, she is hoping to deliver a positive message to those who are survivors of gun violence like she is.

“Even though at times it might not feel great, and it might not feel like you deserve to be here,” Yuzefpolsky said, “you’re here for a reason and you have so many more things to accomplish, things to try, people to meet.”

When she was eight years old growing up in California, Yuzefpolsky was at her grandparents’ house for a Christmas eve gathering when her aunt’s disgruntled ex-husband showed up and murdered nine members of her extended family. At the time in 2008, the incident was the deadliest mass shooting in Los Angeles County history.

“I was the first person that ran up to the door to see him,” said Yuzefpolsky. “He was dressed in a Santa suit and obviously me being eight at the time I was super excited. I didn’t think anything of it.”

Yuzefpolsky was shot in the face, but the bullet went in and out of her cheek and she was able to escape. Her parents and two younger sisters also survived, but two of her grandparents, four aunts, two uncles and a cousin were killed that night.

“For a few days, I was in the hospital, but didn’t really know any of the aftermath of what had happened,” she said. “Even for a few days after I had come home my parents waited to tell me what had happened, just because everything was obviously very surreal still.”

In the 15 years since her family’s tragedy, Yuzefpolsky has dealt with the trauma with the help of others and made remarkable strides. Now 22 years old, she is an example of what is possible for those who have lived through similar experiences.

A three-year starter for head coach Lauren Ebstein’s Jumbos, Yuzefpolsky is hitting .339 this season, and has helped the team to a 26-2 record so far this spring. She carries a 3.81 grade point average as a psychology major, with a minor in entrepreneurship. In addition to working as a campus tour guide, she is a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, helping organize events for Tufts’ Student-Athlete Mental Health Awareness Week.

“Kat has been an integral part of our program on the field, but it’s more off the field that she will leave her legacy,” said Tufts softball coach Lauren Ebstein. “She always shows up for her teammates. She always does things for others, helps others, and is her teammate’s biggest cheering section in the dugout, whether or not she is playing or doing well while she is playing.”

Those Who Help

Organizations like Brady: United Against Gun Violence, which the softball team is supporting, are working to help end the epidemic of gun violence in America. In her own case, Yuzefpolsky went through a few years of therapy aimed at helping her recoup some of the loss of her childhood innocence. She also attended a grief camp with other family members, where they learned how to release emotions like anger, sadness, and frustration in healthier ways.

More than anything, Yuzefpolsky has leaned on family to get through it. Her parents Leticia and Vadim are the only remaining adults on her mother’s side, and they have been a rock for the entire family.

“All of my cousins on my mom’s side lost either one or two of their parents,” Yuzefpolsky said. “I have 13 first cousins and they all turned to my parents to look for support and guidance. Not only did they help me, but they also helped all of my relatives find joy in our day-to-day lives.”

Playing softball has been an important part of Yuzefpolsky’s journey. Though she started in the sport a little later than most California girls, she took to it quickly and became good enough to play in college. While attending a camp at another school in New England, her parents talked her into visiting Tufts. Fond of elephants even before her visit, she fell in love with the campus. Ebstein had seen her at the camp and reached out with interest, and before long the pieces fell into place for Yuzefpolsky to become a Jumbo.

The distance from family has been the most difficult part of being at Tufts for Yuzefpolsky. She wishes they were here to share in her successes on and off the field. A scar on her chin and moments of anxiety at times are reminders of that night, but with a strong resolve to continue moving forward, she has built a bright future for herself here and keeps her focus on what lies ahead.

“While our program is definitely going to miss Kat’s energy and love for all things Tufts Softball when she graduates in May, we are also so excited to see where she goes next and what she will accomplish,” Ebstein said.

As her time at Tufts winds down, Yuzefpolsky is enjoying the ride that the team is on and is interviewing for jobs. She hopes to find one back home in southern California to start, so she can be with family. From there the sky is the limit.

“Given how much loss my family has faced and how much hardship I’ve faced, I am extremely grateful for all of the opportunities I have had,” she said. “It’s very easy to get sucked into the darkness and not be able to pull yourself up. Getting through that and being able to live a life filled with friends and love and happiness, I’m just extremely grateful.”

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