One Month After, Newtown Deals with the Physical Reminders of the Massacre

As generous as the country and the world has been, the gifts are a reminder of the horrors of Dec. 14—all that and the school building itself in Sandy Hook

  • Share
  • Read Later
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

A flag that bears the names of the dead flies over a makeshift memorial in Sandy Hook, after the Dec. 14 shooting tragedy when a gunman shot dead 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 28, 2012.

Chris Kelsey has become an expert at organizing confusion. In a warehouse on the outskirts of Newtown, Conn., the town tax assessor walks past dozens of rows of cardboard boxes, stacked four-feet-tall, wrapped in plastic, and sitting on plywood frames. They’re ready to go, but no one yet knows where. Two weeks ago, the warehouse was filled with the voices of volunteers and the beeping of delivery trucks backing up to unload the latest drop-off of contributions—all from the heart, all for the families who had lost their children, all for the children who had survived the horrors of Dec. 14, 2012. The unsorted offerings ranged from toys to cleaning supplies and were piled high. Like so many reactions to the events at Sandy Hook Elementary, the gifts were overwhelming and well-meaning—but now they were superfluous and, at this point, no one knows what to do with most of them.

On Sunday afternoon, Kelsey walked alone through the warehouse with his two dogs — Twinkie and Licorice. He hasn’t seen much of them over the past month. Following the shootings at Sandy  Hook Elementary School one month ago, Kelsey began to spearhead the organization of donations being shipped from as far away as China. He has only had three days off since Dec. 14, regularly working 12-hour days. He rarely takes lunch – typically eating cold pizza, donated baked goods or whatever he could rummage in a hurry. He’s not the only one. “Whenever anybody saw a ball on the ground, they just picked it up and ran with it and it just kind of happened,” he says. “It’s working to a degree. Not everything we’ve done is perfect, but you know, we didn’t really have a playbook for it either.”

(PHOTOS: The Story Behind the Iconic Photograph from Sandy Hook)

Monday morning marks the one-month anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 students, six faculty members, and himself. He had killed his mother before he headed for the school. And, one month later, even as the country debates the greater issues of gun control and America’s culture of violence, Newtown residents are still trying to pull together a playbook to figure out the way forward. The issues have gone macro in the national debate but, in Newtown, they are micro, lodging in every heart.

More than the goods in the warehouse, one physical reminder of Dec. 14 is a priority for Newtown locals. Newtown first selectman Pat Llodra says the town’s “next big step” is deciding what to do with the building where the massacre occurred. On Sunday night, hundreds of residents gathered in an auditorium at Newtown High School to weigh in on the future of the crime scene. Recommendations ranged from turning Sandy Hook Elementary into a planetarium to using the site for a peace education center. Several attendees said out of respect for survivors, teachers and siblings of the dead that the school be torn down. However, a clear division emerged even among parents of the children enrolled in the school. Noting the loss of life and security, some asserted that Adam Lanza had already taken too much from the community. Speakers did not utter Lanza’s name – instead, they referred to him as the “psychopath” or the “perpetrator.” To them, abandoning the building would allow Lanza to steal their memories and their children’s dreams of the future. They do not want to give him another victory.

(MORE: Trying to Make Sense of Tragedy: Why the Sandy Hook Shooting Is So Painful for All of Us)

Aimee Tabor, whose son Kyle was in a classroom directly across from those targeted, said it is unlikely that the community will reach a perfect consensus. “[Kyle] saw more and heard more than  any child ever should, let alone any person ever should,” Tabor says. She says her son had recently started to experience nightmares. “I understand from all of the sentiments that there’s not going to be a solution for all people.” Still, she said later in the proceedings, “I would never want to make someone go back that doesn’t want to.”

Although the speakers differed in their opinion about the building’s future, nearly all of them rejected the idea of redistricting, which would scatter the children now in the school. They want the Sandy Hook students to remain together as a unit, regardless of the building where they will ultimately receive their education. Several Sandy Hook parents also said the decision should be made mostly by those directly affected by shooting – including the parents, staff and victims’ families. Llodra said she has received a commitment of financial support from government officials regardless of the conclusion the town reaches. “I think everyone in this room agrees that we need to bring the Sandy Hook students home,” she said, as nearly everyone in the room applauded.

Like many in the town, Llodra encourages more conversations about federal gun control issues – but she also recognizes her own limitations in furthering national issues. “I’m saying to our state delegation, to our federal delegation, and to the president – you all said the right thing when you were here, now do it,” she told TIME. “I can’t do it from here. All I can do is help guide our community. I can’t guide the state or the country. You can. It’s your job. You do it.”

(MORE: In the Shadow of Sandy Hook, a Powerful Pro-Gun Organization Keeps Silent)

Newtown residents expect there will be issues and needs that remain hidden and that will eventually emerge. Many in the town have said they are taking things “one step at a time.”  But a few things have become clearly evident. At a Board of Education meeting and a gathering of the board of police commissioners, resident and mother Amy Roman told officials that increased and long-term security presence at the schools has “gone from a want to a need.” Last week, police officers requested an adjustment to workers compensation laws to include aid for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Local businesses in Newtown also took a hit, as the shooting resulted in blocked roads and decreased patronage. According to Llodra, the town has received $500,000 in aid from the state of Connecticut that will be distributed to those businesses. Eventually the town will begin to discuss plans for the official Sandy Hook School memorial. For now, the remains of the makeshift street memorials are sitting in a warehouse waiting to be sorted.

In the donations warehouse, 27 boxes line the right wall of the main room. Kelsey and his team have sorted more than 50,000 stuffed animals, 600 boxes of other toys, 1,600 boxes of school supplies, 51 bicycles and much more. About 3% of the packages received at the warehouse were addressed to specific victims and their families. Some were even directed at the Lanzas. Volunteers have cataloged those personal offerings – CDs, prayers, artwork, letters.Throughout the past three weeks, Kelsey has arranged for the families to visit the warehouse and collect what they wanted of the gifts. Only three families, including the Lanzas, have not come to the warehouse. He will not identify them, just saying that they are not ready and may never be. As for the rest of the gifts, Kelsey says they will be redistributed and donated to organizations or communities specified by the victims’ families. He is organizing a committee to handle the redistribution of the donations.

On Sunday afternoon, Kelsey was meeting with family friends of one of the victims who came to collect the personal gifts. He stood off to the side while they sorted; Twinkie tried to engage her owner in a round of fetch by dropping a ball at his feet. Kelsey plans to return to his regular job on Monday, but will continue his work at the warehouse on an as-needed basis over the coming months. “We got hit so hard so fast, there was really not time for processing,” he says. “It’s just — do it.”

MORE: Remembering the Victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting