Dec. 16, 2012 at 9:23 AM ET
Teacher Vicki Soto, 27, died a hero on Friday when she was killed protecting her class of first-graders from alleged school shooter Adam Lanza, 20.
Her family spoke out on Sunday, telling TODAY's Erica Hill about Soto's dedication to the children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
“She didn’t call them her students," sister Carlee Soto, 20, told TODAY. "She called them her kids."
James Wiltsie, Soto's cousin and a Fairfield County police officer, said the family was told that Soto died trying to save the lives of her students. “She was found protecting her kids," he said, "doing instinctively what she knew to do.”
While details are still emerging about exactly what happened, Wiltsie was told that Soto hid her first-graders in closets and cabinets once she heard there was a gunman in the school.
"[She was] huddling in the closet, trying to shield them from the spray of bullets,” he said.
Soto had been teaching at the school for five years. The oldest of four children, she lived with her parents, sisters and a brother, along with her black Labrador, Roxy, in a modest, Cape Cod-style home in Stratford, Conn.
When asked what he would miss the most about Soto, her brother Carlos pointed to the mundane daily activities that would no longer happen.
"I would hear her running the coffee machine every morning, and then running down the stairs, slamming the door on her way out," he said. “That’s the thing I’m going to miss.”
Soto was reportedly adored by her students. Her sister Carlee said the feeling was mutual, and that her first-graders, who Soto called her "angels," would always bring a smile to her face.
"She would come home with stories of what the kids did that day," Carlee said. "She loved those students more than anything."
There’s been a huge outpouring of support for the Soto family. A candlelight vigil was held on Saturday night, which brought hundreds of people out in support of the family, paying tribute to the woman many knew just as “Miss Soto.” And several colleagues got in touch with the family.
“They said they were honored to know her,” her sister Jillian Soto, 24, said.
The Soto family paid homage to Vicki with her favorite color -- wearing green scarves and handing out green ribbons to the community.
“Vicki would’ve been very happy to see all those people there supporting her,” Jillian said.
Snow was falling while the family spoke with TODAY, and Jillian said it was Vicki’s way of being there, as she loved Christmas and the holidays.
“She wouldn’t have it any other way than having us speak right now and having it snow.”