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Gestures Of Kindness, Part Ten: Current And Former Residents, And Strangers, Find Ways To Help And Heal

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Sandy Hook resident Kris Schwartz, who created the Angels Of Sandy Hook / Hope Faith Love bracelets shortly after 12/14, received this photo of North Carolina Central University basketball players wearing the wristbands during one of their games.

(This is the tenth installation of a series of stories that share with readers special events that continue to take place as Newtown heals following the events of 12/14 at Sandy Hook School. It is also a continuation of anecdotes from across the country, of people offering kind gestures on behalf of our town.)

On February 24, Chris Schneider completed the Rock n' Roll New Orleans Marathon.

The Long Island resident dedicated his training and the marathon “in memory of the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook school tragedy,” Mr Schneider wrote in an email to The Newtown Bee. “When I decided to undertake this memorial fundraising effort, I was just struggling to figure out a way to help,” he added.

Mr Schneider has a lot of family and friends in the Northeast, including a cousin, Reinhard Hillefeld, who lives in Newtown.

“The tragedy our community is going through really hit him hard, being a father to three little boys,” Mr Hillefeld said in early March. 

Thanks to donations from family, friends, co-workers and even strangers who heard of Mr Schneider’s decision, he was able to raise over $4,100 for The Sandy Hook School Support Fund.

In addition to fundraising for the fund, Mr Schneider wore a pair of sneakers during the Louisiana run that he had marked with the initials of each of the Sandy Hook School victims while running the marathon. In addition, he wore a green T-shirt with white lettering that read 26 Miles for the Sandy Hook School 26.

“I added the initials to the sneakers after I completed a training run in memory of each victim,” he wrote. “The stories I read about each victim carried me throughout my training and the marathon. As I approached the finish line, I stopped and took off my sneakers, raised them up, and bowed my head to honor the memory of the victims and recognize their inspiration in my life.”

Mr Schneider finished the marathon with a time of 3:54:28.


Back To School, Keeping A Promise

Madeline Gagne raised a few hundred dollars a few months ago. Above the fundraising effort, though, the work the 19-year old Sandy Hook resident and University of Tampa sophomore feel better about returning to school after her holiday break.

“I had a hard time going back to Florida for school this semester,” she said. “I felt like I was betraying Newtown by leaving it after such a tragic event.

“I still feel guilty being in warm and sunny Florida while my family drives past Sandy Hook Center every day and is reminded of what happened,” she said via email.

Like many residents and friends of Newtown, Madeline began to immediately incorporate something into each day’s outfit that would remind her of 12/14 — a We Are Newtown T-shirt, a Pura Vida bracelet, “or even green and white nail polish,” she said — but it didn’t feel like enough. Before she returned to school earlier this year, Madeline reached out to Jason Sumerau, her sociology professor, looking for some advice.

They decided that instead of creating a separate event to serve as a fundraiser, Madeline would piggyback onto something that had already been planned. They decided to keep things simple, setting up a table during the school’s spring dance concert on February 23, where Madeline had hoped to sell snacks and water, as well as stickers and bracelets, during two performances that day. 

Madeline’s stepfather is Adam Zuckerman, who in February designed stickers that feature a red heart surrounding a depiction of the Sandy Hook School sign. With white lettering above and below the school sign, the message of the stickers read “Sandy Hook School In Our Heart.”

She learned that the school’s theater department already handles water and snack sales, but “they were more than willing to have the proceeds from the Saturday shows go to Sandy Hook,” she reported. Madeline — a dance student, who was also in one of the numbers during the annual show — had decided that she would donate any money she raised to Sandy Hook Promise.

“I feel they are the most personally connected to the tragedy and have great ideas for the future of our town and of the United States in general,” she said.

On February 23, Madeline set up a table, complete with her stepfather’s stickers, along with materials from Sandy Hook Promise, and a copy of The Newtown Bee’s special edition of December 17, 2012, so that she could answer questions about her hometown.

She made $212 at the performances, and another $50 was donated directly to Sandy Hook Promise through the organization’s website in Madeline’s name by friends and family who could not attend the event.

“It feels great to have made that much,” she said. “I didn’t expect it.”


Small World, Big Hearts

Originally from New Milford, Tara (Collins) Regan felt her family “needed to do something to show our support,” she said. The mother of two boys — Carter, age 8, and Cooper, 5 — and married to a former professional hockey player, Mrs Regan says she and her family have settled in Missouri, “but of course [we] have many friends from high school, and [go] back to visit quite often.”

As the names of the families were released on Saturday, December 15, the name of one family jumped out to Mrs Regan.

“I knew the father of [one of the children] also graduated from New Milford High School,” said Mrs Regan, a member of the NMHS Class of 1993. “It became clear that we needed to show our support for this family, and show my own children that we can still support these families living quite some distance away.”

Within hours of learning the names of the victims, Mrs Regan announced on her Facebook page that she would be designing, ordering, and selling green and white silicone bracelets, in exchange for $5 donations. The bracelets are green, with white lettering that say Sandy Hook Newtown CT on one side, and Forever Angels 12/14/12 on the other.

Before she was even able to figure out where the donations would be sent, the first order of bracelets arrived, and she had orders for more than that first batch of 800 bracelets.

Meanwhile, Mrs Regan approached her employer, Patriot National Insurance Group, to see if the company would be willing to help in selling the bracelets. 

“Turns out the HR director, who I knew was from Connecticut, knows the mom of [the child whose father attended New Milford High School that Mrs Regan knew of],” she said. “Small world. So we worked together ordering another 800 bracelets.”

By March 11, Mrs Regan had raised more than $7,500, and she had decided to divide those funds between four funds: $3,000 is being donated to Newtown Park & Bark, in memory of Olivia Engel; $2,000 is going to Newtown Kindness/The Act of Kindness Awards, in memory of Charlotte Bacon; $1,350 will go to Newtown Social Services, earmarked for the police officers who responded to Sandy Hook School on 12/14; and another $1,350 has been donated to the Town of Newtown, for teachers and survivors.

“I have worked really hard on this fundraiser and while I am so far away I want you all to know in the town of Newtown how much support and how many donations from all over the United States I have raised to make this truly an amazing fundraiser, experience, lesson for my children and hope that in some way we can ease or contribute to these families, first responders and teachers in a way that I never thought I could possibly accomplish,” said Mrs Regan.


Hearts With Sandy Hook

Zynga players from around the world began searching for a way to express their support for the families and community of Newtown. Within weeks of 12/14, an offer was made and nearly one million online gamers responded have.

The Hearts with Sandy Hook website was created to share heartfelt messages of love and hope from Zynga players.

The visualization was created by artists and engineers at Zynga (creators of social gamess like FarmVille, Texas HoldEm Poker/Zynga Poker and ChefVille) less than a week after the shootings.

Hearts with Sandy Hook is a website that has been launched with messages for those who live in Sandy Hook. The website shows an evening sky and a large willow tree, with water around the base of the tree, and the occasional swan and her goslings swimming past. Calm music plays in the background.

Almost immediately after a visitor arrives at the website, Chinese paper lanterns begin appearing from within the tree. Each lantern has an anonymous message for residents of town. The messages are brief — none appear to be longer than 75 characters — but filled with love and prayers. There is no charge to visit the website or to click on the messages, which continue to emerge from the tree as long as a person wants to visit the website, which was designed by Zynga as a gift.


Cheerleaders Lift Spirits

Christina Elsenhans, a former Newtown resident and cheerleader who now lives outside Philadelphia, organized an event in January that was meant to raise funds toward rebuilding the playscape at Dickinson Park.

Christina is one of about 100 former Newtown cheerleaders who created Newtown Cheerleaders Lifting Spirits, a non-profit organization for raising funds toward that new play area.

The fundraiser took place Saturday, January 26, at Bourbon Blue, within the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, and offered hors d’oeuvres and drink specials, a raffle, and live music.

Donations of $15 were requested at the door.

Between the event and donations, Christina and her friends, including fellow former Newtown cheerleader Stephanie McKay, who was able to be at the event to help out, raised about $3,000.

“The event was wonderful,” Christina reported. “It turned out better than I could have imagined. Everyone had a great time.”


Helping On Many Levels

A group of women in the Capitol Region of New York, Niskayuna Moms on the Run listened when Newtown’s town leaders began to plead with the nation to stop sending so many items into town. Knowing that the town was still being overwhelmed with visitors, the women, an informal running group, decided to host their own memorial run and walk on January 19, with proceeds to benefit one Newtown fund and two Niskayuna funds.

The event was called Strides for Sandy Hook Memorial. Participants were invited to choose from a 5K run and 1-mile walk, each leaving from Niskayuna Town Hall.

 “We were originally going to go to Newtown to do Strides For Sandy Hook [a 5K run-gathering and balloon release at Fairfield Hills held on January 19], but when people were encouraged to do their own runs and events, we decided to do this,” Tina Lee, who organized the New York event with Kelly Anderson, told The Newtown Bee. “We have a large email list that we could send information out to, but we realized there were a number of people in our community who might also want to be involved.”

In early January, a fire in Niskayuna had taken the life of a 14-year old girl. Grace Kline had died as a result of a fire in her home.

“So we were also struck with that,” said Ms Lee. “All these ideas were forming. We wanted to do the run for Sandy Hook, and with the money we raised, we had decided we want to do something for a memorial park in Newtown.

“Grace was a special needs girl, and the Best Buddies program at her school was one of her favorite things,” Ms Lee continued. “So we decided to divide the funds between the Newtown park, our local fire department, and Best Buddies.”

On the Saturday of Martin Luther King, Jr weekend — the same day residents of all ages gathered near the soccer fields at Fairfield Hills for their own memorial and healing efforts — 50 runners and 100 walkers showed up outside Niskayuna’s town hall to walk, run, and begin their own healing. All ages participated, from families with children in strollers to older people who walked, according to Ms Lee.

“It was nice that we had the walk, because that made it accessible to so many more people,” she said. “It was just a really nice, community event.”

Over $3,000 was raised that morning, less than two weeks after the two runners had decided to work with their group to help a town about 96 miles to their southeast. Over $600 of that money was earmarked for the Newtown Park Fund, with the rest divided between Van Antwerp Middle School Best Buddies Program and the Niskayuna Fire Department.

“The event touched people on different levels,” Ms Lee said. “We wanted to do something for Sandy Hook, and at the same time we had a local loss that people wanted to respond to. We were just driven forward.

“There was no funeral for Grace,” she said, “so it turned out that there were many families who came to our race because it offered some closure for them. It was able to help people on so many levels.

“We have so much respect for your community,” Ms Lee said. A mother herself, she has been touched at what she and the rest of the world have been allowed to learn about the youngest victims of 12/14.

“We have all appreciated the ways the families have been able to share what they could about their children,” she said.

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