The utility poles in Newtown have always done extra duty as sign posts for tag sales and special events. And in recent years, they have supported an array of American flags along Main Street in the warmer months. But last weekend, the poles took on some extraordinary and encouraging adornments.
By Saturday evening, January 19, hundreds of wooden stars, each uniquely hand decorated, clustered in small constellations on Newtown’s utility poles. They run the length of Main Street and much of Main Street South, the full length of Church Hill Road, and then branch out from Sandy Hook Center.
The majority of the stars carry messages of inspiration: Hope. Faith. Strength. Dream. Love. Peace. You Are Not Alone. Confidence = Faith. One Can Make Change, But Many Can Make A Difference. Know That We Care.
A few were painted by young children, with swirls and smiley faces done by hands probably too young to understand what words like faith and change mean, but know the kind of illustration that makes other people happy.
The stars were the latest outreach by Stars of Hope, an ongoing project sponsored by New York Says Thank You Foundation, which helps to rebuild communities around the United States affected by disaster as a way of saying Thank You for all the love and support Americans gave to New Yorkers in the days, weeks, and months following 9/11, according to the Stars of Hope website. The project is also sponsored by Groesbeck Rebuilds America, a Texas-based “Pay It Forward” organization committed to aiding and rebuilding communities affected by disaster.
The home base of the project, in fact, is in the family barn of Patrick Samuels, who lives in Groesbeck, Tex., and has served as project director since 2007.
“Our project is a community-based, child-focused art project,” Mr Samuels said Wednesday afternoon. He and his two daughters had arrived back in Texas one day earlier, having spent the weekend on the East Coast. “It gives children a say-so, a voice to provide hope in their community.”
Stars of Hope is run by first responders, educators, and others from Texas, New York, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and many other states who volunteer their time (Mr Samuels is deputy chief for Groesbeck Volunteer Fire Department; Mia Toschi, one of the volunteers who spent time in Newtown last weekend, is the morning anchor for Ebru Today, the morning show of New Jersey-based cable television station Ebru TV.)
Wooden stars are cut, and then given a base coat of color, before being shipped to a school where each new project takes place. Volunteers spend two to three days with schoolchildren in grades K–12, providing the opportunity to paint colorful wooden stars with a word or message of hope and inspiration.
“We’ll go in, the kids will paint these stars, and then we go out and put them up in the community the next day, once they’ve had a chance to dry,” said Mr Samuels. Stars of Hope provides everything, he said: the stars, paint and brushes, even smocks. “All we need is for people to come and paint those stars,” he said.
The stars, which measure 13 inches from point to point, are then placed on street corners on wooden stakes painted green, to brighten the landscape of a community that has been hit by disaster, whether natural or manmade. Due to time constraints last weekend, and a lack of stakes, said Mr Samuels, the group attached the wooden stars in Newtown directly to utility poles.
“Most of the time mom and dad are trying to figure out how they’re going to get things taken care of,” Mr Samuels said. “Most of the time kids — not intentionally, but inadvertently — get left to deal with disaster on their own.
“Our mission is to give children the option to put something onto the stars, to say something, a picture, a word, a phrase, whatever,” that will offer comfort to them as well as those in their community. “We have found that it’s very powerful for these kids to have that outlet,” he added.
The first Stars of Hope project was done in Greensburg, Kan., after an EF5 tornado struck in May 2007. There have also been visits to Galveston, Tex., after Hurricane Ike; Mena, Ark., after an EF3 tornado in 2009. The list continues: Fort Hood, Tex. (shooting on military base); Tuscaloosa, Ala. (tornado); Bastrop, Tex. (wildfires); Joplin, Mo. (tornado); Minot, N.D. (flood); and New York, following Superstorm Sandy.
“When we fist started was 2007, we were doing one project a year. Unfortunately, there are too many tragedies. We have found ourselves doing this to the three times a year,” said Mr Samuels, later adding, “We’ve had a pretty good range of disaster and tragedies.”
Stars of Hope volunteers recently conducted three projects in New York, according to Mr Samuels, two with students in a public school in Howard Beach, and also at Long Beach Catholic Regional School, in Long Beach. There was also a community event in Breezy Point, where children were invited to paint stars alongside their parents and grandparents.
“That was probably the location that received the most amount of damage after the storm,” Mr Samuels said.
It was while the group was in New York that Mr Samuels reached out to the Newtown community. He placed calls to the office of Superintendent of Schools Dr Janet Robinson, he said, but had not heard back from her before last weekend.
“I know Newtown has been inundated with well wishes, so we didn’t want to add to that,” said Mr Samuels. “I’d heard that the city was having some issues with needing and wanting to move on. We were tying to be real sensitive to that, but we still felt the need to reach out.
“We felt it would be helpful, especially since that tragedy was directed at school kids. We just wanted to put some stars out.”
And so armed with a collection of stars, including more than 400 that had been done in Utica, Ill., that held generic messages so that they could be posted anywhere, and stars that had just been done by children in New York with messages for Sandy Hook, Mr Samuels and about 20 others — including one daughter who is a first grade student and another who is 4 years old — set out on January 19 for Newtown, stopping first in Stratford.
The family of Victoria Soto, one of the teachers killed on 12/14 at Sandy Hook School, had reached out to the group, said Mia Toschi, one of the adult volunteers in Newtown last weekend. The work on January 19, therefore, began in Ms Soto’s hometown of Stratford.
“They asked us to put [stars] along the road that has been renamed in her honor, and at the school Stratford has renamed for her,” she said. “They even asked us to go to her gravesite, her mom’s home, and the homes of her aunts and uncles.”
Ms Soto’s brother and one of her sisters joined the group while stars were being hung in Stratford.
“She was a very special lady,” Mr Samuels said of the sister.
The group then continued on the day’s work, bringing hundreds of stars into Newtown. They then returned to Breezy Point, and other areas still recovering from Superstorm Sandy.
“Some folks did both days, others did one or the other,” said Ms Toschi. Between the two days, more than 1,000 stars were put into place.
Participants, she said, came not only from the tri-state area to hang stars last weekend. They came from Texas, Kansas, “from all over,” said Ms Toschi, who lives in New Jersey. “They flew in from all over, on their dollar, to do this. Everybody wanted [Newtown and New Jersey] to see a little color.”
A former education reporter for News 12 and former senior managing editor for Weekly Reader, Ms Toschi was very familiar with Sandy Hook School before 12/14.
“I knew Dawn [Hochsprung, the school’s late principal],” said Ms Toschi. “I knew all the educators.
“Dawn was a rock star,” she continued. “If you needed something, she was there. She was always smiling. It was infectious.”
A former Connecticut resident, Ms Toschi said the shootings at Sandy Hook School “was one of the big ones that hit everybody.
“This was definitely something that resonated with so many people,” she said. “Newtown is one of the cutest towns in America. It’s got that New England feel. I think it just disturbs people so much because you just can’t explain [what happened last month].”
The work done last weekend in Newtown began having an effect even before the Stars of Hope group had completed their task.
“It did make a lot of people smile,” Ms Toschi said. “People stopped their cars to come talk to us, and to take pictures. Probably 25 people approached us and said ‘What is this?’ and they were all smiling.”
And while Newtown is now home to Stars of Hope, Mr Samuels is not giving up on his hope that a workshop will eventually be held here as well.
“It’s our desire to do one in Newtown,” he said. “If the school wants to do one, we definitely want to come back. We want to do a full blown project and let every one of those kids who wants to paint a star do just that.
“What we do is more of an address to the emotional side of tragedies, not counseling,” he said. “We’re just letting these kids know that they can have an impact on the restoring of their community.”