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Trick Or Treat For Canned Goods Delivers Despite WestConn Team Tragedy



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In the ultimate display of team spirit, WestConn coaches and athletes stepped up for each other during tragedy last month.

Western Connecticut State Men’s Lacrosse Coach Ryan Cavanaugh, who lives in Sandy Hook, had planned for an annual pre-Halloween food drive. In recent years Cavanaugh had organized Trick or Treat for Canned Goods events for New York and then Danbury-based organizations. This year he decided to have athletes collect canned goods for FAITH Food Pantry.

The collection was scheduled for Sunday, October 24. Weeks earlier, letters were sent to households around his home, alerting residents to the fact that the collection was coming. Cavanaugh and his wife also planned to host the team for a meal at their home that afternoon.

Then tragedy struck.

On Friday, October 22, two WestConn students, both members of the Men’s Lacrosse Team, died in a crash in their hometown.

According to the Connecticut State Police report, Jacob Chapman, 18, and Tyler Graham, also 18, both of Colchester and members of the WestConn Men’s Lacrosse team, were traveling in a 2010 Nissan Altima in Colchester around 1 pm. A second passenger, Trey Massaro, 19, was also in the vehicle when it attempted to pass a vehicle.

The Altima went off the road and crashed. Chapman and Graham both died; Massaro reserved serious injuries, also according to the CSP report.

Meanwhile, Cavanaugh was home, doing yardwork, planning for the weekend’s events.

“My neighbor ran up to me,” he told The Newtown Bee. “A lot of people were trying to call me, but I was outside.”

When his neighbor told him there has been an accident, Cavanaugh’s first fear, he said, was that his wife and children were involved. When he called his wife, however, she was able to tell him it was a few of his players people were trying to contact him about. Within a few hours, news of the fatalities was confirmed. Cavanaugh’s focus had to shift to the emotional care of his team.

“That Friday we all met at the field, we were all crying,” he said. “It was tough. Just emotionally, everything seemed like a blur.”

Winning Moves By Fellow Teams

That’s when two fellow WestConn coaches picked up those best laid plans and continued what Cavanaugh and his players had started.

Heather Stone, the university’s head softball coach, and Meghan Els, the head women’s lacrosse coach, contact Cavanaugh to see what they and their teams could do, according to Cavanaugh.

“The other teams said they would collect everything. They stepped up and did it,” he said.

Before joining the WestConn faculty, Cavanaugh said last week, teams he coached at Plattsburg State in New York did similar outreach for nonprofit groups. When he arrived at WestConn a few years ago, the project continued with him, with pre-Halloween collections being done for Interfaith AIDS Ministry of Greater Danbury, he said.

A parishioner of St Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, home base for the nondenominational FAITH Food Pantry, Cavanaugh said he decided this year to “do something in my community.” The act of collecting food and then donating it to organizations that serve those in need, Cavanaugh said, is something he and WestConn “have been pretty passionate about.

“It’s important in developing a program, and character, and community service,” he added. It’s important for his players, he said, “to see things going right back into the community. It’s important to have the ability to help people in the community.

“It’s part of our program and part of the identify of who we are,” he also said.

When his players were unable to collect canned goods on October 24, Cavanaugh was grateful to have other WestConn players take the position for them.

That Sunday afternoon, 13 members of the two female teams — five lacrosse players and eight softball players —fanned out to the homes where residents were expecting a visit. The women collected the items and then headed toward Church Hill Road.

As had been arranged, a FAITH volunteer was waiting for the group when they arrived around mid-afternoon.

FAITH Food Pantry volunteer Joan Brand said “three or four cars filled with canned goods” showed up at the pantry.

Cavanaugh was grateful, he said, for the efforts done by the two WestConn teams. Their work meant the 2021 Treat of Treat for Canned Goods went on. It also meant, he said, that his team and families of the two players who died were all able to take their first steps toward healing. Among the earliest was taken by Jeffrey Graham, who launched The Tyler Graham Foundation in his son’s memory.

“The foundation will be designed to help the Colchester community heal, and preserve Tyler as a legacy, and a player, and his friendship as well,” Cavanaugh said. “We talk about the healing process of this team, and I think that’s going to be a huge part of moving forward for all of us.”

To donate to and/or learn more about FAITH Food Pantry call 203-837-0816 or visit newtownfoodpantry.org.

To learn more or donate to The Tyler Graham Foundation, visit TylerGrahamFoundation.com.


Associate Editor Shannon Hicks can be reached at shannon@thebee.com.

After the sudden death of two WestConn Men’s Lacrosse players on October 22, members of the university’s Women’s Lacrosse and Women’s Softball teams followed through on a plan to collect and deliver items to FAITH Food Pantry two days later. —photos courtesy Heather Stone
Part of the donations collected by the WestConn players during the Trick of Treat for Canned Goods food drive last month. This year's collection went to FAITH Food Pantry.
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