With Painted Ceramic Hearts, Newtown Has An Opportunity To Pay It Forward

Photo: Shannon Hicks

Simple, encouraging messages for residents of Boston.

Judy Pederson returned to Newtown early last week, and again at the beginning of this week. This time Ms Pederson was packaging and then transporting painted ceramic hearts from Newtown to Boston.

The painted hearts are the latest in an ongoing project called Hearts of Hope. Newtown was introduced to the project in February, when hundreds of the personalized hearts arrived from across the country and were hung on trees just in time for Valentine’s Day. The effort, coordinated locally by Judy Vetare with Ms Pederson, the founder of the community support initiative, meant residents also found the palm-sized keepsakes on the two month anniversary of 12/14.

After the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, Newtown had a chance to turn from being not only the recipients of signs of support, but also able to push some of that good karma toward others.

Less than two weeks after the bombings, Hearts of Hope launched “To Boston With Love.” Organizers asked that Newtown residents consider painting hearts supplied by the organization during the week of May 4–11. The hearts were earmarked for Boston and Watertown, Mass., sites of last month’s bombings and subsequent shootout that created scenes — and feelings — of grief all too familiar to Newtown residents.

A large painting party was held at Newtown United Methodist Church on Wednesday, May 8, with more than 45 people attending, including Ms Pederson, who arrived from her home and studio in Cooperstown, N.Y. Additional gatherings had also been done by Girl Scouts, families, and other small groups, including members of Newtown Senior Center last week.

In addition, “I know that there was a Newtown mom who took them to one of the schools, and 50 of them got done,” Ms Pederson said.

Last Wednesday night, all ages were seen crowded around tables in the church hall. For a few hours parents and children, friends and strangers were all talking, laughing, occasionally focusing on the work before them. Each heart started as a plain white piece of ceramic, and then each took on its own personality as colors, designs and lettering was added.

As hearts were finished, they were laid out to dry on tables and counters along the front and side of the large room. After they had dried, other volunteers started glazing to the hearts so that they can be hung outdoors.

“I love looking at the gallery,” Ms Pederson said, looking over one of the tables. “It’s wonderful to see them one by one, but when they’re all together… it’s just amazing.”

In less than two weeks, said Ms Pederson, 1,600 hearts had been ordered for Newtown. Hearts of Hope kits contain hearts, paints, brushes, and postcards (so that painters can add messages for those who will eventually find their painted heart), all packaged for distribution. Kits are available for a suggested $4 donation each.

Ms Pederson arrived in Sandy Hook on May 8 with 500 hearts.

“They may all go tonight,” she said.

“This has all happened,” she said, referring not only to last week’s painting party but also the 1,600 hearts that had been requested by Newtown residents “in just three weeks. That speaks volumes to what this town represents.”

“There were graduations, and First Communions, and Mother’s Day weekend,” she continued. “It’s a busy time of year anyway, and all of this still happened.”

Newtown resident Sue Shaw had taken the lead to organize Wednesday night’s painting party, which had started as a conversation between herself and friends Judi DeWolfe and Chrissy Hadgraft, with the three women talking about ordering “some hearts to paint,” Ms Shaw said. After Ms Shaw reached out to Ms Pederson and learned it would be possible to have a few hundred hearts delivered to Sandy Hook, the trio decided to see if and when the church hall would be available so that anyone could join the effort.

Ms Shaw relied on word of mouth to friends and family, as well as a post on the Hearts of Hope Facebook page, to let people know about the event. Many former residents participated, she said.

“Many of the [attendees] were previously from Newtown, attended and graduated from Newtown High School,” she said this week.

“I wasn’t as surprised at the [size of the] turnout,” she continued, “as I was proud of the community for choosing to spend the evening doing this for another community dealing with tragedy in a different form. Growing up here, I’ve always know that it’s a very giving community.”

The night turned into a comfortable gathering for so many, in large part because many people contributed to its planning. The church allowed the hall to be used, and Ms Shaw and a few friends supplied plenty of food, snacks, and soft drinks to keep the army of artists working for a few hours.

“It was a wonderful night of just relaxing and getting our minds off of the tragedy here in town, even if it was for only a few hours,” she said.

“The painting party at the church could not have gone better,” Ms Pederson agreed. “Everybody seemed to really get into it, and love it. So many beautiful hearts were created.”

She was also pleasantly surprised when Ms Shaw and her friends took all of Wednesday’s creations home with them to finish applying the protective coats.

“They glazed them all, and had them back at the senior center on Monday,” Ms Pederson said. “And this was Mother’s Day weekend when they were doing all that. Just amazing.”


Packaging, And Then Traveling To Boston

By Monday, May 13, it was time to collect all of the finished hearts and package them up. Two work sessions were scheduled at Newtown Senior Center, and Ms Pederson said ten volunteers helped her during the day. Senior Center Director Marilyn Place “was so gracious,” she added. “She gave us an entire room for the entire day.”

Ms Pederson and her team packaged 1,200 hearts on Monday, “another amazing event,” she said Friday, May 17. Each heart is put into a maroon nylon bag, with a notecard from the painter to the recipient, along with a note about Hearts of Hope. The nylon bag is then put into a clear cellophane envelope so that the entire package is protected if hearts are hung in public places in inclement weather.

The first, large batch of hearts were all taken to Boston. Another 400 hearts in Newtown, those which had not been finished by Tuesday, will be shipped to Watertown Police Department, said Ms Pederson.

By Monday night there were more than 50 boxes of packaged hearts.

“We lost count,” Ms Pederson admitted, laughing. “We were trying to keep track, but we got so excited when we reached the 1,000th heart that we lost track of the box count at that point.”

After checking in at the senior center one last time Tuesday morning, Ms Pederson headed toward Boston. There, she met with three representatives of New York Life Insurance Company’s Volunteers For Life team. The insurance company’s philanthropic program had subsidized the costs for nearly 1,000 of the hearts that were painted in Newtown, said Ms Pederson, who wanted to personally thank company representatives for their continued support of the program.

“They’ve been so generous over the years,” she said of New York Life. “They’ve helped us in so many ways, including painting Hearts of Hope for Newtown. They painted some of the ones that were created for the residents there.”

So with three volunteers at her side, Ms Pederson visited Brigham & Women’s Hospital, where some of the bombing victims continue to recover from their injuries. The group handed out a number of the hearts at that location, and then later at Copley Square.

“I had been in touch with the mayor’s office,” she said, “who recommended Copley Square, which is where the memorial site is, rather than going to random locations.”

Among those who went to Boston to deliver the Hearts of Hope were father and son Jeff and Mike Hadgraft, and mother and daughter Kathleen and Rachel Cole, all of Newtown. The Newtown group caught up with Ms Pederson, and another 12 New York Life employees, and headed toward Copley Square, where a kind gesture found them.

“We went to the Fairmont [Copley Plaza Boston], thinking we could park nearby and unload the boxes there, and then go across the street to distribute at the park,” said Ms Pederson. Instead, a bellman at the hotel loaned the group one of the hotel’s luggage carriers, and helped unload the boxes. He then, said Ms Pederson, told the group to leave their car where they were parked, and to use the luggage rack when they went to the park.

The response was tremendous. All of the hearts from Newtown were handed out in less than two hours.

“It was amazing,” said Ms Pederson. “People were coming back, after they opened the bags and saw the hearts, telling us ‘This is beautiful,’ ‘This is amazing.’

“Every since person had somebody come back to them and say ‘Thank you. This is really great,’” said Ms Pederson. “It was kind of a magical day, it really was.”

Hearts of Hope was launched in January 2002, in response to 9/11. “It really took off in 2006,” Ms Pederson said last week. “We have done, and delivered, approximately 35,000 hearts to date.”

Actually, as of May 7, according to the project’s website, more than 35,887 Hearts of Hope have been created and shared across the country. Ms Pederson estimates that approximately 100,000 have been affected by Hearts of Hope, counting not only those who have painted the hearts, but also those who make the hearts from clay, the volunteers who package and distribute them, and those who find them.

Hearts of Hope is a program of Interregnum, Inc, Finding life after loss, which was incorporated in New Jersey as a 501(c)(3) charity to offer support, education, and outreach to those who experience life-altering events and the subsequent loss that accompanies these. Interregnum was established by Ms Pedersen, MSW, LSW, FT, a former hospice worker, who expects to revisit Newtown again.

“There has been so much interest, from Newtown, of people wanting to do more,” she said Friday, May 17. “There are more events being talked about, and I definitely hope to be back. We had an awesome week.”


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