Newtown Sends out the Last Post-Shooting Donations
by PAT EATON-ROBB
Thousands of the toys and other gifts that poured into Newtown following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School ended up going to children's hospitals, mental health programs, victims of Superstorm Sandy; some are even destined even for homeless children in India.
And a lunch box, a backpack and a stuffed animal went to 9-year-old Rashid Ricketts, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
"I use the backpack every day, and the teddy bear is on my bed," Rashid said. "It feels nice to get something from someone you don't even know. It makes me just want to say thank you and sorry for your loss."
Newtown officials say they have distributed all of the 63,790 stuffed animals and thousands of other items sent there in the wake of December's shooting. The town received enough school supplies to fill 2,211 large moving boxes, and games and puzzles to fill 159, said Chris Kelsey, the town assessor, who was in charge of organizing the gifts. Other gifts included clothing, bicycles and quilts.
The town got so many gifts that donated warehouse space had to be used to house it. Kelsey said he shipped out the last boxes of toys and school supplies March 29.
Many of the items ended up with Newtown children through local giveaways, first for Sandy Hook kids, later for all Newtown residents. Kelsey said the rest went to charity, and the town gave the victims' families first choice of where to send the items.
"Churches, hospitals, schools, Alzheimer's patients, Vietnam veterans groups; they went to a lot of places," he said.
Rashid got his new possessions from an education program where a niece of one set of grieving parents had interned.
Tree Arrington, founder and director of REAL Skills Network Inc., said he became emotional as he watched the parents of 6-year-old Daniel Barden lug boxes of toys and school supplies up the stairs to his office in Poughkeepsie.
The organization provides educational and summer programs for underprivileged children in the area, and after their niece's experience there, the Barden family decided it would be a perfect place to share some of the gifts.
Arrington said the Bardens' donation allowed him to provide book bags and pencil cases to children who wouldn't otherwise have one, as well as toys for a reading program.
"I cried in front Ms. Barden," Arrington said. "I cried in front of her husband. When they left, I cried. I cried when they came a second time. Then they thanked me for taking the stuff, and I cried again."
Rashid and the other kids in the program had written sympathy cards to the Bardens, but they didn't expect anything in return.
Robbie Parker, who lost his 6-year-old daughter, Emilie, sent some of the donations to a group called Green Chimneys, which provides help for children with emotional and behavioral problems.
"To go from the darkest moment that you could ever imagine yourself being in and being overwhelmed with love and support really does help you get out of that hole," he said. "It's been amazing to be a part of that."
Children's hospitals in Hartford and Bridgeport were given stuffed animals to hand out to patients. Others were given to police departments so officers could give them to youngsters caught in traumatic situations.
Six-year-old Ben Wheeler's family sent teddy bears in his memory to victims of Sandy in the hard-hit Rockaways area of New York City.
The Lindenwood Christian Church in Memphis, Tenn., ended up with 240 boxes of toys, school supplies and clothing, which the church's youth group is repackaging to send to India to give to homeless children there.
The church became the beneficiary through the family of 6-year-old victim Jesse Lewis. His grandmother has a good friend who is a member of the church and told them about the India project.
"They showed the kids in our youth group a picture of Jesse and said what we are making sure results from that terrible tragedy is that all these other kids in India are getting these supplies, and that message got through, I think," said Andrew Taylor-Peck, the church's associate minster for youth and families.
The families of Jesse and teacher Victoria Soto, who was hailed as a hero after her death for trying to shield students from the gunman, asked that some be given to the state Department of Children and Families.
The agency said the toys were handed out to social workers in the Bridgeport, who have been giving them to children with whom they come into contact.
"It is an amazing testament to the strength and the goodness of the Newtown families that they should think of others in the wake of such a devastating tragedy," said Commissioner Joette Katz.
Kelsey said gifts are still trickling into town, but not enough to keep using donated warehouse space. He has brought in a 40-foot storage trailer to the municipal center to handle them.
The Barden family said it has been inspired, both by the generosity of those giving and by the reaction of people like Arrington. Madeline O'Neill, Daniel's aunt, said her sister and brother-in-law will continue looking for ways to share the outpouring of love they have received with others.
"They are devoting their life to create some good or meaning out of this terrible loss," she said. "And to be able to help others has been very helpful in the healing process."