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This story was updated at 4:30 pm on March 27 to correct the date the Foundation was established.
Five years after an outpouring of donations flowed into Newtown following the Sandy Hook tragedy, a foundation formed to handle the challenging tasks of coordinating distributions to immediate survivors, supporting response programming, and partnering with myriad service initiatives, is continuing to offer strategic relief to those affected by posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and other issues.
Just a few weeks after the February 27 anniversary of its establishment, the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation (NSHCF) released a retrospective report that looks back on work done to date, while casting a wary eye toward a future where many experts say widespread need for specialized support will continue to be in high demand.
In the report’s introductory message, NSHCF Director Jennifer D. Barahona, LCSW, recounted how the agency came together “to receive funds collected through the Sandy Hook School Support Fund.”
Ms Barahona notes that “neither would exist if not for the unbearable tragedy that took the lives of 26 individuals and changed the lives of thousands of others on December 14, 2012.
“It is with deepest compassion and utmost respect for all those so impacted that we do our work,” she states.
Ms Barahona and members of the foundation turned to the task of producing their latest report with a goal of to providing the local community, as well as “those around the country and the world who showed us an enormous outpouring of financial support, how the funds have been used and the work that we have done to date.”
She and the foundation board believe the report could provide other communities that are preparing for trauma response or in the recovery process “valuable lessons learned” as Newtown responded to the aftermath of what is locally and commonly referred to as “12/14.”
“While there have been other tragedies around the country that have been similar, what happened here in Newtown was unprecedented,” Ms Barahona says, while acknowledging, “We haven’t been perfect.
“In this situation, perfect was not possible,” she continues. “The greatest challenge has been to accept that there have not been, nor likely will be, any decisions marked by universal agreement.”
Ms Barahona says “given that difficult reality, we set forth to involve a diverse group of impacted individuals, to listen and respond, and to make the best decisions possible in a timely and transparent manner.”
She said the foundation strives to “continue to do that moving forward,” while “continuing to partner with individuals, groups, and organizations throughout the community to build a robust infrastructure of support that will last well beyond our sunset date of December 31, 2025.”
The report provides a glimpse into the first hours and days following the mass shooting that took the lives of 20 first graders and six staff members, reminding readers how Newtown Savings Bank (NSB) became one of the primary places where donors began calling, looking for a place to give.
“With tight accounting procedures already in place and the ability to staff up quickly, NSB established an account for the unsolicited funds,” the report relates. “With the unprecedented volume of calls and donations coming in, NSB turned to a well-known and trusted community partner, the United Way of Western Connecticut (UWWC), for guidance, support, and collaboration.”
Kim Morgan, chief executive officer of UWWC, said in the report that shortly after news of the incident in Sandy Hook broke, she intended to close her office and send employees home to be with their families. But calls from foundations and United Ways around the country began to come in offering support to the community and sharing experiences from other tragic shootings.
“I learned a lot that afternoon about the complexity of setting up funds that would support victims and the community,” Ms Morgan stated. “Over the next several hours, we also received calls from donors and corporate partners who wanted to donate.”
She recalled Newtown Savings Bank calling to ask if UWWC would consider opening a fund.
“We agreed, with the understanding that United Way would only facilitate the processing of the gifts, not determine how the funds would be spent or hold the funds long-term,” Ms Morgan recalled. “The decision making would belong to the victims and the community, and we would not accept any formal designated gifts.”
By the end of the day on December 14 (2012), the Sandy Hook School Support Fund (SHSSF) was established by NSB and UWWC.
Making A Plan
With input from a number of other communities that experienced mass shootings, both entities recognized the importance of proceeding carefully and thoughtfully with distribution of the funds and felt that those decisions should come from the community itself, the report states.
A transition team was quickly formed, comprising community stakeholders who would ultimately form the NSHCF, and receive the entirety of the Sandy Hook School Support Fund.
During the days, weeks, and months that followed, NSB and UWWC continued to sort through tens of thousands of pieces of mail and respond to thousands of phone calls. Donations were forwarded to the appropriate fund, if not intended for the SHSSF, and every piece of mail was cataloged and retained, the report states.
Neither NSB nor UWWC received any compensation from the fund.
The report goes on to finely detail the administration and designation of funds for distribution over the ensuing five years, while paying the necessary regard to individuals involved who went above and beyond the call to ensure the foundation and its mission proceeded efficiently and effectively.
Among other key elements of the five-year foundation report is a review of the community needs assessments it undertook beginning in the spring of 2014 “to help inform the Distribution Committee on how people were coping, what was helping, where funding should be prioritized.”
Three additional assessments have since been delivered.
Through feedback received on pressing needs and priorities, funding has been broken down into three core categories over the last several years. They are:
*Mental Health & Wellness — The fund continues to provide financial support to qualified individuals for out-of-pocket costs related to behavioral health needs from issues stemming from their exposure to the tragedy.
*Grants — The fund provides grants to organizations working directly with those impacted by the tragedy.
*Community Strengthening — The fund promotes continued recovery through support of community guest speakers, trainings for clinicians and nonprofit leaders, specialized programs for impacted populations, and more.
The report goes on to examine the work accomplished and funding distributed under these three core initiatives over the years, as well as relating key lessons learned through the foundation’s work to date.
The report indicates that Ms Barahona and members of the foundation recognize “recovery and grief will be a lifelong process for many,” and they “remain committed to continuing to provide support to individuals and the community with the goal of creating sustainable programs and services to assist those most impacted by the tragedy.”
In supporting Newtown’s collective “journey toward healing,” the NSHCF looked to the future affirming that “for continued recovery to occur the community needs to remain committed to building strong connections at every level.”
In order for resilience to occur, the report concludes “there must be ongoing opportunities for connection and engagement, efficient coordination of resources at the systems level, collection and interpretation of data to inform and support decision making, empathic communication that is clear and consistent, and acceptance of the different ways in which people continue to recover without judgment.”
In the remaining eight years of the foundation, the board of directors and Distribution Committee pledge “to monitor, assess, and meet the needs of those impacted by the tragedy as they continue to evolve.”
The report closes telegraphing that a “gradual decrease in allocations annually from the Sandy Hook School Support Fund will continue to fulfill the greatest needs that exist at the time while working to build capacity in the Newtown community to be responsive to longer term issues that outlive the Foundation.”
View the entire report by visiting nshcf.org.