It all started with an American flag.
Seven weeks after a large American flag was put on the arm of a bucket truck and raised at the northwest corner of Church Hill and Edmond Roads, the corner remains occupied by that oversize sign of patriotism and a large white party-style tent. The property has turned into the destination for those seeking to visit the one temporary memorial still within Newtown honoring the victims of 12/14.
Newtown resident Kevin Yacko , his wife, Christine, and son, Thomas, went to the vacant lot on Sunday, December 16, to hang a large American flag from Mr Yacko’s bucket truck. Mr Yacko is the owner of Yacko & Sons LLC, an excavation and tree service company.
“It just felt like the thing to do,” Mr Yacko said of raising the 17-by 24-foot flag. The flag was purchased for Thomas Yacko following his return from Afghanistan in 2006, where he served with the US Army. Until now it had only been flown, the family said, for happy occasions.
While the Yackos were there that Sunday afternoon, they met Renee Gilbert, who showed up with a signature board. A chaplain from Cavalry Church in Southbury, Ms Gilbert was looking for a place to set up the board so that others could sign something to show support to the families who had lost loved ones just two days earlier.
A gazebo-style 10-by 10-foot tent was pitched by the Yackos on December 16 to shield themselves from rain while setting up their flag. Before they knew it, visitors to Newtown, who were looking to just get close to the scene of the tragedy, to somehow pay their respects, began stopping at the vacant lot and asking to leave dolls and other items there instead of fighting the growing mass of people and media outlets that were flocking into Sandy Hook Center.
“People were grieving, they were very upset. We gave them a place to go,” Christine Yacko said of the immediate response to their location.
This week the tent and flag are still there and, say members of Cavalry Church and the Yacko family, many people continue to visit the space.
On Sunday, February 10, however, all will be dismantled. Director of Land Use George Benson has given the tent and those who have been staffing it an extension to their temporary permit, which was due to expire on Tuesday, February 5.
“They have one final weekend,” Mr Benson confirmed on Tuesday.
A few days after the small tent and flag had been erected, Cavalry Church had arranged for a 10-by 20-foot tent, which gave additional room for those who had heard about the tent and its growing collections. Within a day and a half, the tent was filled with dolls, signs, cards, and other mementos.
A 20-by 20-foot tent was then rented from Chatfield Rentals, which provided more room as well as walls. On January 18, a third tent - this time measuring 20 by 40 feet - was put into place. Gravel was laid down on the ground and then indoor-outdoor carpeting was laid down so that visitors do not have to worry about mud in warm temperatures, or water or even snow during colder temperatures and weather events.
Allowing People To Mourn
John Eastwood is pastor of Cavalry Church, a nondenominational, evangelical, Christian Church in Southbury. He was at the staging area of Sandy Hook firehouse the morning of the shootings. Having been to the World Trade Center following 9/11, the sites of commercial airline crashes, and other places of disaster, Pastor Eastwood knew what people would be looking for. A memorial location.
“What we have now is allowing people to come mourn,” he said on January 21. “The memorial is here for the health of the community. People can come touch something, and release.”
“People discovered this because, with the back-to-back traffic that was out there initially,” said Thomas Yacko, nodding toward Church Hill Road, “people came to us and said ‘Is this the memorial?’ We told them, ‘No, but you’re welcome to stay.’”
“People come in here, they mourn, they rejoice,” Kevin Yacko. “It surprised me, but they still come. There were probably 125 people today [five weeks after the memorial began]. There is a real need to have a place like this.”
Hundreds of items have been brought to the tent. Children’s letters and drawings fill tables along the interior of the tent. Lengths of paper chains, and separate lengths of foam hearts have been strung overhead. Paper snowflakes, ornaments on an artificial Christmas tree (many made and/or decorated by children), and thousands of Japanese origami pieces are just a portion of what has been received from around the world.
Iris Baldino and her daughter Tess visited the tent recently. The pair had been at the Mobil station across the street, Mrs Baldino said, and both women felt it was the right time for them to visit.
“It was a spur of the moment thing,” Mrs Baldino said. “I think we just felt brave enough to come in. We felt it was the right time to come here.”
Iris and Tess spent more than an hour in the tent on a Monday night. They were drawn, they said, to a large white foam board. Many people sign their names or draw small pictures on the form boards set out around the tent. The mother and daughter found markers and started drawing, everything from rainbows, green memorial ribbons and the letters SHE to a shining sun, countless animals and numerous words of encouragement. A visit back to the tent the following afternoon found the signature board nearly filled with their artwork and kind thoughts, including from brief prayers and bits of children’s songs.
“I just want everybody in town to know that this is a place to come,” said Mr Yacko . “It’s not a church or a chapel. It’s a place where people can talk, maybe even have some coffee.”
Cavalry Church chaplains — usually Ms Gilbert, who had been at the tent almost every day since December 16 — are there to keep things neat, and will “offer an ear to listen, or a shoulder to cry on, but only if people want that,” said Pastor Eastwood. Having said that, it is hard for anyone to enter or leave the tent without getting a bear hug from Ms Gilbert. Her nickname is now The Hugger.
“Memorials are important,” said Pastor Eastwood. “In here, we let people have their own space.”
While the church maintains a presence, Pastor Eastwood is careful to keep a nondenominational feeling inside. Memorial candles have been brought in by visitors, not the chaplains. Cavalry Church literature has been placed on one table near the tent’s entrance, mixing with books and pamphlets from other groups.
“This isn’t about bibles, but people have left literature, brochures, whatever,” said Kevin Yacko . “Some people don’t want to talk with us, but they take a book on their way out.”
Also on that table near the entrance is a donation jar, which holds donations received for stickers in the shape and style of a police uniform patch, designed by Connecticut native Tim Gagnon. Mr Gagnon has allowed his design to be used by a few groups to fundraise for local charities, and Mr Yacko is using the patch to raise funds for a granite memorial he and his family hope to be able to erect by the spring.
For those who are uncomfortable with the idea of visiting the tent — and residents still tell Kevin Yacko, he said, that they just aren’t ready — the decals are also available at a number of businesses in Newtown. A $5 donation is requested for each, and they can be found at Bagel Delight, Butcher’s Best, Dodgingtown Deli, Dodgingtown Liquor, McGuire’s Ale House, My Place Restaurant, The Newtown Bee, Napa Auto, Newtown Deli & Catering, Newtown Hardware, Our Green House, Sandy Hook Deli & Catering, and Sal e Pepe.
A fund has also been set up at People’s Bank, said Kevin Yacko , for anyone who would like to donate to The Sandy Hook Family Memorial. The memorial, said Kevin Yacko , will give the people of Newtown “a place they can go to mourn, remember and reflect on the Sandy Hook School tragedy for generations to come.”
Nothing in the tent is for sale, and the Yackos and Cavalry Church members plan to store everything that has been given to them once the memorial tent is taken down.
Reaching The End Of Its Run
Town officials recently told the Yackos and Pastor Eastwood that that time is coming quickly. The majority of the public memorials, in fact, had been picked up by Public Works crews during the overnight of December 28-29.
“We have a temporary permit for tents. I gave them seven more days on Tuesday [January 29], and told them that was going to be it,” said George Benson, Newtown’s director of Planning & Land Use. He agreed this week to give them one final extension. The church and the Yackos have agreed to dismantle the tent after 6 pm Sunday, February 10, according to a February 6 press release issued by the church.
“We’re not being heavy handed. We did let them do this for a long time, more than any other memorials,” Mr Benson said. “It’s basically the same thing that at has said about the other memorials: it’s time.”
The town, and Mr Benson’s office, is not against any memorials. There are still temporary ones that are being allowed to go up. A 75-foot-long banner that was received from Tucson, Ariz., was hung from the Church Hill Road railroad bridge just a few weeks ago, in fact. Mr Benson arranged for the permit for the January 11 installation of the banner.
“We’re not anti-memorial,” said Mr Benson. “We’re doing everything we can for the town to help out.”