Paying It Forward: Local Officer Sends Support Message To Surfside Following Condo Collapse
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy of December 14, 2012, the Newtown community received an outpouring of love and support from all over the world. Some sent cards, others sent teddy bears, but one kind gesture in particular caught the attention of Newtown Police Officer Maryhelen McCarthy.
That gesture came in the form of a large multicolored sculpture of a turtle with a placard that read, “A Gift To Newtown, CT, From The Town Of Surfside, Florida, & Ruth K. Broad K-8 Center,” dated February 13, 2013.
Across the turtle’s left flipper is the word “Ruth,” leading people to affectionately call the statue “Ruth the Turtle.”
McCarthy first saw the sculpture when it was on display during an activity at the temporary Newtown Healing Arts Center, a then-vacant storefront next to Caraluzzi’s on Queen Street that housed a number of items that had been sent to the community from well-wishers, and hosted community resilience activities after 12/14.
“During my patrol shift, I was assigned to security [at the center],” she recalled. “There were a lot of thoughtful and meaningful displays of art. But, across the room I was saw this huge, life-size colorful turtle. I was mesmerized.”
At the end of the event, McCarthy met then-mayor Daniel Dietch, and Surfside art teacher Maggie Vidal-Santos, who both accompanied “Ruth the Turtle” on her journey to Newtown.
They told her how the fiberglass loggerhead turtle was one of 18 on display in the Surfside community as part of its 2013-14 public art exhibition. The turtles were even showcased in a calendar, with Ruth’s picture representing the month of December.
“The purpose was for any tourists to visit all the turtles and, in the process, explore downtown Surfside. Seventeen turtles were decorated by local artists, while the 18th turtle — Ruth — was decorated by art students at Ruth K. Broad Bay Harbor K-8 Center,” McCarthy said.
The reason the school chose to send Ruth the Turtle was because Vidal-Santos read that Sandy Hook Elementary School had a pet turtle, Shelly. They felt that Ruth the Turtle had greater potential to bring joy than simply being a Surfside public art installation — so they decided to send it as a gesture of healing to the Newtown community.
Keeping In Touch
After that encounter, McCarthy kept in touch with Vidal-Santos and her art class.
“I sent them a thank-you note and a ‘baby book’ with photos that I took of Ruth in her new home and a story of how much Ruth loved us in Newtown — while of course still missing her Surfside family,” she said. “On February 14, 2014, I was invited to visit Surfside to attend a town hall meeting, so the town could recognize the connection that Surfside, Florida, now had with Newtown.”
McCarthy traveled to Florida for the special occasion and was accompanied to the March 11 meeting by her sister, who lived in nearby.
“While I was in Surfside for the town hall meeting I secretly arranged to visit the school. Only the principal [Maria T. Rodriguez] knew that I was coming,” she said. “They filled the school library with Maggie’s art students.
“My sister and I mixed in with the students. Maggie walked unsuspectingly in[to]the room. When our eyes met, she started to cry. After we hugged, Maggie explained to her students who I was. I hugged each student and thanked them by name for their kindness towards Newtown. It was a very special moment,” McCathy shared.
As she was meeting students, she gave each child a Newtown memorial bracelet, and each student told her an act of kindness they did in honor of the 26 Acts of Kindness initiative started after 12/14. Later that day, McCarthy went to a town hall event that was packed with people including Vidal-Santos, the mayor, and the chief of police.
The mayor read an official proclamation honoring McCarthy for her selfless service to Newtown that, in part, stated, “Officer McCarthy has acted compassionately, keeping at the same time the commitment to the maintenance of the highest standards of professional performance.”
When she got up to say a few words, she only made it a few sentences into her speech before she started to cry, which led to those around her sobbing as well. She managed to relate some background about what makes Newtown special — mentioning the Labor Day Parade, town flagpole, and annual duck race — as well as talking about the police department.
“As one of the many hundreds of police officers who worked that day and every day since then, it has been an emotional roller coaster for myself and fellow officers,” her speech relayed.
She discussed the sadness of what she and others went through on 12/14 and in its aftermath.
Looking back on the speech, McCarthy said, “With great difficulty, I was able to finish my entire speech. It was something I needed to do. During those moments, when a tough police officer broke down and unashamedly cried, everyone in that room could feel a bit of the intense sadness of how I felt for my community.”
In the years that followed, Ruth the Turtle continued to be a beacon of light and healing in the community. Today, she remains on display in the hallway of the Newtown Municipal Center.
“Every time I go to town hall, I go out of my way to walk by Ruth and give her a pat on the head,” McCarthy said. “Ruth always makes me smile! I am so grateful that our town decided to leave Ruth somewhere for all to enjoy.”
Tragic Condo Collapse
More recently, McCarthy and the rest of the world learned that at around 1:20 am on June 24, a portion of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside collapsed, destroying about 55 apartment units. At press time for this story, July 14, 96 bodies had been recovered from the site.
Upon hearing the news, and knowing that the population of Surfside is very small, McCarthy’s first thought was, “Were any of those people who were in the condominium, the students who I met?”
Then she thought of those community members as a whole and how helpless they must feel.
“How they each must be wishing that they could roll back the clock and fix the unfixable… the news left a hole in my heart that words cannot express for all the pain that community will be facing for a lifetime ahead,” McCarthy said.
The cause of the collapse still remains unknown, and McCarthy has decided to honor the special bond between Newtown and Surfside by reaching out to them in their time of need to offer comfort and support.
She will be sending Vidal-Santos and the new Surfside mayor, Charles Burkett, a photo of Ruth the Turtle with a large cut-out heart placed around Ruth’s neck that reads, “Our hearts are with you! Your friends in Newtown, CT, and Ruth the Turtle.”
Having been in a community that experienced such a traumatic event, McCarthy has deep empathy for all of those in Surfside.
“We recognize that the loss is devastating for the whole community, whether they knew someone in the collapse or not. The pain is still sharp, and the loss is still real. Each loved one recovered by first responders is a double-edged sword. It is closure for a family; but still, it is an irreplaceable loss of a loved one. It’s a hurt that even time won’t heal.
She hopes that the kind gesture will make a positive difference just like theirs did in her life, and in the lives of so many who have met and admired Ruth the Turtle.
“Now, unfortunately, the bond between Newtown is closer than ever with Surfside,” McCarthy said. “I think the most important thing that the community of Surfside needs to know is that our prayers are with them during these horrible days.”
Reporter Alissa Silber can be contacted at email@example.com.