Sandy Hook Promise: Grassroots Organization Promises Positive Change

Sandy Hook Promise is a national grassroots organization based in Newtown formed by 17 core members, including Executive Committee members Tim Makris, Lee Shull, James Belden, Tom Bittman, and Rob Cox. The group formed December 15, 2012, in response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School (SHS) the previous day, and is currently focused on providing aid and comfort to those immediately affected by the incident and the community in general. It also wants to foster dialogue on the local and national levels to address gun responsibility, mental health, and school safety.

Mr Shull, Mr Makris, and Sandy Hook Promise member Suzy DeYoung met with The Bee, January 23 in order to better introduce the organization to the community and to explain its current and ongoing mission.

Since the first days following the shootings at SHS, organizers have worked with immediate family members of the victims to direct them toward financial or in-kind help that is needed, or assist in making connections with professionals that may be needed. Mr Makris stressed, however, that Sandy Hook Promise does not represent the victims’ families in any way.

An example of the connections facilitated by the group is that of meetings between interested Sandy Hook families and survivors or victims’ family members who came to Newtown from Tucson, Ariz., Aurora, Colo., Virginia Tech, Columbine, Colo., and Seal Beach, Calif., Sunday, January 13.

“Sadly, they all belong to the same exclusive club,” said Mr Shull, but it is that shared experience that provided a connection.

“These survivors [from other mass shootings] were able to offer support to the Sandy Hook families, and they are in a position to provide information on how they are moving forward,” Ms DeYoung said. They are aware that some of the people are staying in touch with each other since that meeting.

Sandy Hook Promise also arranged for Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly to come to Newtown, said Mr Makris. “We are connecting families with the help they may be needing,” he said.

It is time now, said Mr Makris, for Sandy Hook Promise to reach out to the broader Newtown/Sandy Hook community. “We are coming out from the core of helping those families who chose to work with us, but this is a community effort. We are here for the community and to advocate for changes on a local and national level,” he said.

“Here” is the office space on the second floor of 14 Church Hill Road, where the group set up as of January 14. It is a large, open office area populated by volunteers at tables and desks, answering telephones, responding to e-mails, researching, and opening letters. The walls are decorated mainly with variously sized posters depicting the Sandy Hook Promise logo, a tree whose trunk is an elongated arm and outstretched hand, populated by handprint leaves. Near the front desk, one such poster is covered in signatures scribbled there by the many volunteers who pass through the office. There is a sense that every task is afforded the serious attention it deserves, with conversations carried on in muted voices and telephone calls quickly and efficiently handled.

A large part of what Sandy Hook Promise is involved in right now is the education of its core membership. Those 17 people, many of whom have taken extended leaves of absence from their own jobs to get Sandy Hook Promise off the ground, have been working “18/7 or more,” said Mr Makris. They have reached out to communities that have gone through similar experiences to that in Sandy Hook, “to find out what worked for them and what didn’t,” said Ms DeYoung. For example, she said, from Columbine they learned that it is not just the victims’ families and survivors who struggle to recover. “It’s obvious,” she said, “that the whole town needs to heal.

“We saw that at the Oklahoma City bombing, it had involved children and teachers, so we reached out to that community. It was a chance for us to study some of the long-term effects [of tragedy],” Ms DeYoung said. From Oklahoma comes the knowledge that it is a matter of going through the process of healing, and that healing is a long-term process.

They have consulted with experts in the areas they wish to address.

“We have first listened and learned and set ourselves up properly so that we can be most effective for our community,” Mr Makris said. “If you’re going to make the offer [to help], you definitely want to be able to support it,” he said.

“People who go through [this kind of trauma] don’t even know for a long time what they need,” Ms DeYoung said. How people change from an event like 12/14 is something that may have to be addressed down the road.

That is why it is important, said the members, that Newtown understands that Sandy Hook Promise is in for the long haul. “We’re not just six months, then out,” Mr Makris said. Sandy Hook Promise is modeled after the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) organization. “We looked at how MADD went about putting their organization together,” he said.

“That speaks to the longevity we see for this organization,” Mr Shull said.

Respectful community discussions are seen as essential to the success of Sandy Hook Promise, particularly in dealing with gun responsibility. “If you look at history, discussions on this issue haven’t taken place,” Mr Makris said. Both sides put up walls and the issue becomes polarized.

 “It’s either ‘Take the guns away!’ or ‘I’m afraid you’re going to take my guns away!’” said Mr Shull. “We need to find a middle ground. It’s been all or nothing, historically,” he said.

Sandy Hook Promise will reach out to gun advocacy groups as they explore a position to take on gun responsibility, they said. “You have to talk to both sides,” Mr Makris emphasized. “We’re saying we need dialogue with people to see where is the resistance,” he said.

All subjects are open to discussion. By bringing in people with divergent viewpoints, understanding may come about. In a country of ideas and innovation, Mr Shull said, they are looking for new ideas to old problems.

They see it as a positive sign that Sandy Hook Promise has attracted a diverse group of people. “We have gun owners, and non-gun owners. We have people who belong to the NRA. There are Republicans and Democrats here,” Mr Shull said.

By engaging in a “Listen, Learn, and Act” agenda, the organization hopes to be able to show others how they come to support any particular position in the future. “We hope that people will appreciate the open and honest dialogue,” Mr Makris said, “and we hope to come to an agreement on common ground.”

As vital as open dialogue is, it will not be all talk and no action, though, and that is a promise, Mr Makris said. “As a group, collectively, we need to take in a certain amount of information to be able to take a position, but we don’t have to know everything. After we have formed positions, then it is time to act,” he said. They foresee using legislative and nonlegislative push to create positive change.

Some action needs to happen more quickly, said Mr Makris, as legislation at the state and national level [regarding gun issues] is already happening. Conversations on those issues need to take place sooner, rather than later, he said, and plans are under way to see that they do. Over the next couple of weeks, open house events will take place to introduce the group to the community and begin those dialogues. And, he added, just because Sandy Hook Promise takes a position on a piece of legislation, does not mean that they will cease looking at additional, nonlegislative solutions to any issues they address, now or in the future.

Changes in attitude and behavioral changes, such as those that have made wearing seatbelts or the designated driver commonplace, are needed to implement changes in gun responsibility and mental health, said Ms DeYoung, and in order to do that, there has to be a change in perspective. Change, she cautioned, takes time.

Another area Sandy Hook Promise wants to support is that of research and technology, Mr Makris said, “If it will help with solutions on reducing gun violence.”

“We’ve taken the promise,” said Mr Makris, as have 100,000 others as of January 23, and millions more who have said “Yes, I promise,” on social networks, without filling out the web form at sandyhookpromise.org that is helping create a base of membership.

“We will grow. People are wanting to see where we end up on certain points. There are certainly more people to reach and we are confident we will reach them. We are compelled to take action,” Mr Shull said. “To do nothing, for nothing positive to come out of this massacre, would be a further tragedy.”

Photo: Nancy Crevier

A large canvas of the Sandy Hook Promise logo hangs in the entry area of the organization’s office at 14 Church Hill Road.  Volunteers are asked to add their signatures to it.

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