America responded with love following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. So much love, in fact, that it could not be contained within the borders of the town.
Teddy bears and other stuffed toys, pillows, and comfort articles of all sizes blanketed Newtown after 12/14. Well-wishers across the country and all over the world sought to bring solace to Newtown’s children and families in a universal gesture of comfort, the hugging of a stuffed toy that asks for nothing in return.
Town Assessor Chris Kelsey and fellow member of the Newtown Donation Distribution Committee Ann Benore coordinated with the Distribution Committee, which currently handles only in-kind donations, to find homes for the lonely bears and other stuffed items.
Still, after Newtown and Sandy Hook children and families had had the opportunity to select as many of these items as desired, and even after Mr Kelsey and Ms Benore had distributed thousands more to agencies and organizations worldwide, the town remained “bearied” by love.
“We had thousands of pallets in 20,000 square feet of warehouse at one point,” Mr Kelsey said. Each pallet, approximately 48 by 42 inches square, was stacked five feet high, he said.
“I’d say there were 300 to 1,000 items on each pallet, depending on the size of the stuffed animals,” Mr Kelsey said. “We tried to distribute a lot, wherever we could, statewide and overseas.” A Lakota Indian Tribe in the Midwest, children in Haiti, the Hurricane Sandy relief, and agencies as far away as Kenya were among the recipients.
And while 21 pallets is “a drop in the bucket” overall, Mr Kelsey was more than happy to have nearly two dozen of the pallets collected last month by America Responds With Love, Inc, a nonprofit organization based out of Pennsylvania.
America Responds With Love is a national organization that had offered to find homes for many of the items that the Town of Newtown was looking to distribute.
It was incorporated by founder Richard McDonough, president and CEO, in 1989. A former television reporter with a station affiliated with ABC in Wichita, Kan., Mr McDonough said that his experience there in the early 1980s ultimately resulted in the creation of America Responds.
Following budget cuts of 1981-82, he said, the station chose to focus on how communities around the country were solving problems, rather than the usual “What’s going wrong?” sorts of stories then common. Stories that could not be aired, for the protection of those involved, were addressed behind the scenes. He found that getting products to those truly in need was his calling.
In its 30 years of existence America Responds With Love has become very successful, Mr McDonough said, “in getting stuff, identifying the neediest, and in accomplishing what we do.”
The Town of Newtown received a tremendous number of stuffed animals, comfort pillows, and other donations, reported Mr McDonough in the Interim Summary Report prepared for his organization.
“The generosity of the American people, while well-intended, created a situation where the Town of Newtown had far more donated products than needed,” he said
“People react emotionally to most of these situations,” Mr McDonough said in a phone interview with The Newtown Bee on Monday, April 22. “They want to do something. A teddy bear or comfort pillow is a wonderful thing. But when tens of thousands of people are thinking the same thing at the same time,” it can be problematic, he has learned in his 30 years of facilitating distribution of unneeded items.
Those who sent the gifts should know that their efforts were not in vain, though, he said.
“Those that sent items should know that there is a finite need in Newtown. Using them in other places is a good thing,” Mr McDonough said.
On March 20, the Town of Newtown reached out to America Responds, and within the week, the organization arranged for a tractor-trailer to pick up 21 pallets of stuffed animals and comfort pillows. Connecticut volunteers from the Seventh Day Adventist Community Services Disaster Response, a national humanitarian organization, were on hand to load the truck, provided by Sea Transfer Corp.
From Newtown, the toys traveled to the Bronx, N.Y., where they were placed in a storage area provided by the St Vincent de Paul Society of the St Joseph Roman Catholic Church, in North Plainfield, N.J. In the weeks since, America Responds has placed the items with hospitals, police departments, social services, and other agencies in Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.
According to Mr McDonough, nearly 100 stuffed animals were given to the Camden (N.J.) Police Department for its Toys For Tears program. Another 100 went to the Wilmington Police Department in Delaware, he said.
“We provide stuffed animals for emergency vehicles and personnel to be given to accident victims and victims of violence, especially children,” explained Father Michael Mannion, chaplain of Camden Police Department, in a letter of gratitude to America Responds. “This gift will help lighten the hearts and soothe the pain of many, young and old alike.”
Nearly 1,000 stuffed animals will be part of the summer reading programs at Stony Brook School and West End School in North Plainfield. Six more oversized stuffed animals have found homes as part of the North Plainfield Public Library upcoming summer reading program. The Monmouth Medical Center, in Long Branch, N.J., received 50 stuffed animals and 50 more are with the Volunteers of America Delaware Valley in Camden.
A number of military-themed stuffed animals will find their ways into the hands of soldiers, thanks to America Responds.
“Thank you so much for donating the military stuffies to our class project, Project American Soldier,” begins a thank you note Mr McDonough received from teacher Leanne Borbely in New Jersey. “These stuffies will make an amazing addition to our care packages… Some of the stuffies will be sent to the soldiers stationed in Afghanistan in our next batch of care packages in May. The rest will be given to the soldiers who will be visiting our school in June,” she wrote.
“The stuffed animals brightened many children’s eyes when they were distributed. Parents were very impressed with the act of love that came with the stuffed animal,” wrote RN Doreen Humiston of the stuffed toys given out in the Pediatrics Emergency Room at Monmouth Medical Center.
Chris Kelsey is pleased to know that the items are appreciated.
“We are glad [the items] get to do good,” Mr Kelsey said, “and that they will help those who need it. That was the most important thing to us [in determining what would become of the stuffed toys].”
The remaining stuffed items will be distributed as America Responds With Love identifies where they are most needed, Mr McDonough said.
Volunteers are always welcome to work with America Responds With Love. For information, contact Mr McDonough at 610-731-HOPE, 321-263-7422, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations may be made at www.respondwithlove.org.
“We are pleased to be able to help the Town of Newtown find ways to utilize the stuffed animals and comfort pillows donated in the wake of the tragedy,” Mr McDonough said. “We believe Americans who generously donated the stuffed animals and comfort pillows will find that using these products to help people truly in need in The Bronx, Camden, Long Branch, North Plainfield, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and other communities, will be a fitting way to remember the lives lost in Newtown.”