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Year In Review: Education And Actions Continue To Move Newtown Forward



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The Newtown response to 12/14 has been one of strength and courage, and persistence in seeking ways to change the culture to one in which violence is not an acceptable fact of living in America. Acts of kindness have become a soothing salve on the wounds of this town.

Astute local viewers of the Super Bowl on February 1 may have noticed a familiar flash of green when NBC zoomed in on New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen at the end of the game: the Super Bowl Champion was wearing a green and white Angels of Sandy Hook bracelet on his right wrist when he was seen reaching out to touch the Vince Lombardi Trophy as it was being walked to a dais by former Super Bowl champion Kurt Warner. The bracelet was also viewed when Vereen was shown hugging a teammate. Vereen told The Newtown Bee a few days later that he was given one of the bracelets, designed by Sandy Hook resident Kris Schwartz, shortly after 12/14, and that he never takes it off.

A random meeting at the play 26 Pebbles, in New York City in December 2014, resulted in a friendship between Newtown resident Nicole Friedrich and Carolyn Tuft of Salt Lake City, Utah. In March, Ms Tuft spoke at a luncheon for Ms Friedrich’s friends and members of Newtown Action Alliance, at the Friedrich home. Her story is a reminder of the many people, beyond Newtown’s borders, who are also affected by gun violence.

On February 12, 2007, Ms Tuft and her daughter, Kirsten Hinckley, walked into a card shop in the Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City. Within the hour, Ms Tuft would be gravely wounded and dragging herself across the floor of the shop, to where her daughter lay, victims of a disturbed 18-year-old young man on a rampage through the mall. A bullet pierced her arm and lung as she crouched in response to the last words her daughter ever spoke to her: “Get down, Mom!” The final bullet, fired into her back, left a hole the size of a cantaloupe. Ms Tuft told lunch guests that while she supports the work of groups such as Newtown Action Alliance, and has spoken before Congress on gun control issues, she does not consider herself a gun control activist, but is against gun violence. Ms Tuft would like to see stricter laws governing who has access to guns, and how those laws are enforced.

The Newtown Bee reported on The Story of the Stuff, a web documentary by Ashley R. Maynor, that went live on April 16 at thestoryofthestuff.com. Consisting of brief videos and essays reflecting on tragedies such as the shootings at Virginia Tech and the bonfire disaster at Texas A&M, the film primarily follows four Newtown residents who took on the task of dealing with the enormous physical outpourings of sympathy that came to Newtown following 12/14. Her interviews with former town assessor Chris Kelsey, former C.H. Booth librarian Andrea Zimmermann, local artist Ross MacDonald, and Newtown resident Yolie Moreno track the processing of “the stuff” three, six, nine, and 12 months after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Story of the Stuff is the filmmaker’s search for the answer to a question any community that has suffered an unimaginable tragedy faces: What do those who send teddy bears, toys, flowers, artwork, quilts, banners, letters — and more — hope to do through their actions? It also depicts the challenges that Newtown encountered post-12/14, of “stuff” from around the world.

Although some “stuff” of 12/14 has been turned to sacred soil, other items have found a place in Newtown. Mark Sigrist of Ohio was one of the earliest people to contact the town with an offer of a memorial, said Parks and Recreation Director Amy Mangold, even as town officials struggled to sort through an unexpected deluge of similar offers. His idea was for 26 benches, each with a plaque personalized by the families of the 26 victims of 12/14.

Benches began showing up around town this July, inviting those passing by to pause, rest, and remember. By early August ten benches had been installed in places as diverse as The Pleasance on Main Street and Ferris Farms Creamery. Eventually, 26 benches honoring those killed 12/14 will populate private and town properties in Newtown and area towns, due in large part to the efforts of Mr Sigrist. Each black steel bench comfortably seats three adults, the wide slats on the seat dipping back gently, then rising up to meet the graceful arch of the back frame. The bronze plaques are centrally placed on the back of the bench.

Foundations formed by family members and friends of the 26 who were slain on 12/14 have proved inspirational. Among them is the CMAK Foundation. Chase Michael-Anthony Kowalski, the son of Rebecca and Stephen Kowalski, was just 7 years old when he died at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Their athletically inclined son amazed them, said Rebecca Kowalski. At age 6, Chase was already a triathlete in his age group. CMAK Foundation works to encourage strong families and communities through various events, including triathlons, 5K runs, and an annual scavenger hunt based on places and things Chase loved. It supports preschool education through grants to schools for children who need assistance.

CMAK has also been an inspiration to athletes, including herself, Ms Kowalski told The Newtown Bee during an August interview. She got moving last year, she said, when a friend at the Race4Chase Triathlon in Monroe challenged her. In late August, she competed in the Women’s Sprint Triathlon at Winding Trails in Farmington.

Another resident was inspired by Chase’s story to push himself. David Prud’homme, the father of five young children, none of whom attended Sandy Hook Elementary, took part in an Ironman competition in Cambridge, Md., a few months ago. He had met the Kowalskis only once, but was compelled to ask if he could run the Ironman in honor of Chase. On October 3, Mr Prud’homme wore the bib bearing Chase’s name, and organizers issued him bib number 1214. The months of training were worth it, he said, to carry Chase over the finish line, “because he never got a chance to do it.”

The Newtown Foundation (TNF), a local nonprofit organization formed in response to 12/14, hosted more than 125 people at a breakfast fundraiser on September 12 at Rock Ridge Country Club. The event benefited the Third Annual National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence, scheduled in Washington, DC, in December. Po Murray, chairman of Newtown Action Alliance (NAA), welcomed guests and honored speakers including Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra, Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, Senator Chris Murphy, Senator Richard Blumenthal, and keynote speaker Dr Daniel Webster, director of the Hopkins Center for Gun Policy & Research Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.

Short-term and long-term solutions goals must be found to prevent gun violence, Sen Murphy said in his speech, so that in five or ten years, the anti-gun violence lobby is twice as strong as the gun lobby. “I believe that Congress has become complicit in these [gun violence] murders,” said Sen Murphy, a sentiment echoed by Sen Blumenthal then, and by both men this fall, following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. “People do watch what we do and don’t do. They take cues from what we endorse or don’t endorse,” he stated.

“The greatest, strongest country loses 30,000 to gun violence each year,” from suicide, homicide, and accidents in homes, Sen Blumenthal noted. “None are spared the terrific toll of lives taken by gun violence,” he said, but every one is preventable.

Also continuing to reduce gun violence, in October, Sandy Hook Promise, a local organization committed to empowering parents, schools, and community organizations to deliver gun violence prevention programs, introduced “Say Something.” The new program teaches staff and students in grades 6 to 12 to recognize threats, and how to talk to a trusted adult in order to intervene. Currently implemented in 586 schools, proof of this program’s effectiveness was demonstrated at the Pleasant Run Middle School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In early October, a Say Something-trained student leader in Cincinnati overheard a threat, and reported it. Other students at Pleasant Run Middle School had overheard the threat as well, and told parents. The threat was investigated, and an arrest was made for “inducing panic.” Without the Say Something training, Sandy Hook Promise believes that it is possible no one would have spoken up about the threat, and a serious situation could have occurred.

Newtown resident Jan Brookes was moved, after learning about the loss of the Comfort Quilt, one of more than 250 received by the Town of Newtown after 12/14, and determined she would somehow find a way to replace the quilt and help Newtown continue to pay forward the comfort offered by the lost quilt. On September 10, she unrolled not one, but two quilts onto a table at Newtown Municipal Center. Each quilt is made up of 9-inch squares, hand decorated with markers by children from Newtown and Sandy Hook, as well as from St Hilary Catholic School in Fairlawn, Ohio, where the missing quilt had been created. Four squares that anchor the corners of one were donated by students, now college age, who made the original Comfort Quilt.

The Comfort Quilt, with a plaque telling its special story, arrived to Newtown as part of its travels from town to town, across the country, in need of healing. It was originally created in 2001 by the children of St Hilary Catholic School, and presented to the students of St James Catholic Grammar School in Red Bank, N.J., after 9/11. The City of Tuscaloosa, which had been seventh recipient of the quilt, passed it to Newtown and Sandy Hook. Intended to be passed forward to other cities in need of comfort, should that time come, it became impossible for Newtown to do so. Since the spring of 2013, the quilt has been missing from the collection of items preserved by the Town of Newtown. “I felt a call to recreate the quilt,” Ms Brookes said. The two quilts were hung in the main corridor of the municipal center, temporarily. Then, sad plans were made for it to travel on.

The Newtown Bee responded to President Barack Obama’s televised challenge to news media, following his expression of frustration over the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., this fall: compare the number of US citizens killed by terrorism versus those killed by gun violence, each year. There is a disparity of funds spent to protect Americans — and rightly so, he added — from relatively few terrorist attacks, as compared to what is spent on preventing gun violence. The Bee reported that according to Micah Zenko, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, “The number of Americans killed by international terrorism grew over the past year from 16 to 24. However, this is still fewer than the average number that has tragically been killed each year since 9/11, which is 28. Moreover, not one US citizen died from terrorism within the United States last year.” His numbers showed that more than 10,000 Americans are killed every year by gun violence.

Always generous in spirit and action, the people of Newtown moved through 2015, dedicated to ensuring that love wins.

A bench honoring the memory of Jack Pinto, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on 12/14, overlooks the ball field at Treadwell Park. The bench was one of several placed at public and private places this summer to honor lives lost that day.
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