Child’s Dream To ‘Build A Better World’ Leads To Memorial Design

Published: October 05, 2018 at 07:00 am


After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on 12/14, everyone in the community was left looking for ways to cope. Ben Paley, a fourth grader in the elementary school at the time, says he felt compelled take what he had gone through and use it to build a better world for all.

Ben still remembers what it was like the morning of 12/14. He was in art class working on a clay project when he heard noises over the loudspeaker. His art teacher, Leslie Gunn, quickly ushered the children into the kiln room and rushed to try to lock the main room’s two doors.

Mrs Gunn and her students left the school physically unharmed that day but were nevertheless deeply affected in its aftermath.

Two days later, when President Barack Obama visited Newtown High School (NHS) to meet with families and others directly affected by the tragedy, Ben approached Mrs Gunn — stuffed animal in hand — to tell her what had been on his mind.

“I was standing in the aisle [of the NHS auditorium], and Ben walked up to me and said, ‘When I get back to school, I want to build a better world,’” Mrs Gunn recalls vividly. Both sat down recently with The Newtown Bee to discuss the steps Ben took in creating a memorial that, while not selected by the town’s commission as the design for a permanent memorial, helped him cope with what had happened.

The two did not see each other again until classes resumed a few weeks later, with students and faculty convening at the former Chalk Hill Middle School in Monroe. When school returned to session in January 2013, however, Ben shared with Mrs Gunn that he had been working on some ideas of how to make his dream a reality.

On a large sheet of white paper, he had scrawled a list of 13 traits that were important to him: family, happiness, friendliness, harmony, peace, courage, strength, caring, trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, citizenship, and perseverance.

Next to that was another list with different symbols that he felt represented each trait, like glass for family to represent its fragility, a dove for peace, and a globe with hands holding it to show the act of caring.

He asked Mrs Gunn for insight on what to do with these ideas and soon he began incorporating them in a memorial design that he would work on in the art room during recess.

“It was hard for me after [12/14],” Ben said. “My coping was to be in art… It was a way for me to cope with what had happened, and I got to really talk with her about things that mattered to me.”

After putting his thoughts on paper, he made sketches of a memorial design that incorporated all the elements.

“Weeks upon weeks, he would come in and draw,” Mrs Gunn said. Soon, other students began using the art room as a safe space to create and be with friends, too.

After making a blueprint of the memorial design, Mrs Gunn suggested Ben sculpt a clay model to be able to show people his idea. During that phase, Ben added a reflective pool and combined many of the original elements on a totem.

At the fourth grade art show in 2013, Ben finally revealed to his parents what he had been working on.

Andrew Paley said he and his wife were shocked and amazed at what their son had done.

“It really was beautiful and thoughtful,” Mr Paley said. “We were in awe.”

Original Presentation

Shortly, thereafter, Mrs Gunn received news that the town had formed the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission (SHPMC) to oversee all memorial design submissions.

When she approached Ben and asked if he would be interested in presenting his design to the commission, he did not hesitate to say yes, she said.

In October 2014, Mrs Gunn and Ben attended a SHPMC meeting and spoke to its members about what Ben had created to honor the lives of those lost. Even though it was Ben’s first time speaking in front of a room full of adults, he felt comfortable and enjoyed getting to share his project with others, he said.

“I was so proud of him; he was so poised,” Mrs Gunn said of his presentation. “We walked out of there just feeling so elated and humbled at the same time. It was such a touching moment for all.”

Despite receiving positive feedback from the commission, the group was not ready to accept a design at the time and continued its process of searching for a permanent memorial site.

In the years that went by, Ben continued on through the Newtown school system and Mrs Gunn retired in 2015 after 38 years of teaching art.

Professional Design Process

It was not until late November 2017 that Ben’s parents received news that the commission had opened a formal submission process for the public to participate in, which had a December 15 deadline.

By that time, however, the commission also had a list of memorial guidelines that required much more information than what Ben and Mrs Gunn had originally presented.

When Mrs Gunn asked Ben if he wanted to work on the design all these years later, he said he was ready, but Mrs Gunn admits it brought her some pause.

“It was a lot harder for me to go back to those feelings and thoughts,” she said. “When I started to write the narrative, that became my journey as well in healing.”

Knowing that they would need outside help, a friend referred Mrs Gunn to Kimberly Day Proctor, who owns a landscape design firm in Newtown.

“Without hesitation, she said, ‘I would love to help you,’” Mrs Gunn explained.

The three began meeting regularly at C.H. Booth Library to discuss updating the design. They also visited the site on Riverside Road, the former SAC Field, that was chosen by the commission for the permanent memorial, to understand how to best utilize the space.

From there, Mrs Gunn was able to find an anonymous donor to fund the project. She also contacted the Philadelphia-based design firm Andropogon for help with digital programming.

During library meetings, they began Skyping with a team of about half a dozen people from Andropogon and would review the firm’s mock-ups of the original drawings Ben made.

“When we started to renew it, I was looking at the old plans and realized it wasn’t what I wanted,” Ben explained. “At the time, they were clearly big things to me, but I realize now that the ideas weren’t so perfect.

“But we still tried to keep a lot of those ideas present because that’s what I was feeling at the time and what a lot of people were feeling at the time,” he added.

Ben made sure to include original elements from his clay statue, like the dove and globe, but he also added new features like snowflakes. He gained inspiration for that specific image after receiving a box from his school after 12/14 that was filled with heartfelt cards and gifts from people around the world, including a variety of paper snowflakes.

“[The items’] messages are different, but they gave me the same feeling that all around the world people care, and we are important to each and every one of them,” he said.

Another unifying component he added was a mosaic to be placed at the bottom of a reflective pool around the main memorial design.

“I wanted a mosaic to be at the bottom of the pool to show that we are all part of that mosaic,” Ben explained. “We are all pieces. We, as a community, can all come together, and from that, we can be one big picture.”

The newly revamped design became called A Model of Hope and included renderings labeled The Mindful Journey, An Enduring Memorial, and A Compassionate Landscape.

“We did something so beyond what we thought we could do. We accomplished a great deal and learned so much along the way, and we had such amazing support,” Mrs Gunn said. “To know that there are people out there so giving — that’s what we focused in on.”

Mrs Gunn says Andropogon explained to them that it would be a very competitive design selection. Sure enough, nearly 190 designs were submitted to the SHPMC from all around the world.

Upon finding out the following year that their design had not been selected, Ben — now 15 and a sophomore in high school — says he was disappointed, but that the whole process was both cathartic and fun.

“I’m glad I was able to put my voice forward for that kind of project,” he said. “I really loved that experience... Even though it didn’t get [chosen], it still served its purpose for me.”

He congratulates the designers whose project was chosen and says going forward, his goal is to continue to share the personal message behind his design to help others.

Mrs Gunn says she has been so proud of Ben’s bravery throughout the whole process and hopes other youth realize their voice matters.

“To realize there is a 9-year-old child who’s able to come out of his own trauma and think about others and think about how he can heal is just another reminder of the amazing capacity of a child,” she said.

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