Newtown still needs a hug. Don't be fooled by my hometown's prickly approach to the media, or even to well-wishers with their legions of teddy bears and letters. It is not a show of anger or entitlement that town leaders are asking the press to allow the community to mourn privately the 20 first-graders and six educators massacred a year ago Saturday at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Newtowners are not shirking a responsibility to remember and record what happened. They just need space and time to heal.
The nation and the media understandably want to connect with Newtown, Conn., and to help pay tribute to the innocent lives taken on that awful day last December. It is a natural extension of the extraordinary love, empathy and compassion shown even by complete strangers from the other side of the world.
But those residing inside the bubble of trauma are reminded constantly of what happened last year — through routine chats at the grocery store, at every glimpse of green ribbon or stickers in car windows. Every seemingly mundane act has taken its own significance in the 12 months since the shooting.
For Newtowners, it has not just been birthdays and holidays that have seemed as if they are being experienced for the first time. There have been the continual reminders that this community of 28,000 will never be the same.
The recent release of the police report and 911 calls reopened the wounds of 12/14. But so, too, have annual landmarks such as the start of the academic year and the first lockdown exercise in schools. Even the incremental processes of local government, whether it's ratifying the budget or electing school board members, have been imbued with tragic significance.
Nothing has been more consistently difficult than the birthdays of lost neighbors. The sheer frequency of them, 26 in all, serves as a constant reminder of the lives brutally cut short that morning.
We have put purple balloons on mailboxes for Dylan Hockley, our middle schoolers wore their sports jerseys for Jack Pinto, and families lit candles in their windows forBen Wheeler. As parents of the living, it is nightmarish to contemplate a day without a seventh candle on a birthday cake, or a wedding anniversary frozen in time.
Every holiday since 12/14 has reminded us how embedded our traditions are with rituals designed to engage children and nurture their wonder. Thanksgiving was especially brutal as so many of our neighbors grappled with an empty place at the table. But Halloween, every child's favorite holiday, was perhaps the hardest, not least given the town's embrace of the day. Thousands of youngsters paraded down historic Main Street, past the flagpole, the Edmond Town Hall and, sadly, the funeral home that cared for so many of the dead that day.
And though the entire community is toiling through some form of post-traumatic stress, it has united in surprising ways. Sure, there are many latent disagreements — and a few public ones — about what sort of treatment will be needed to help those most affected by the shooting; what to do about guns, laws, America's violent culture and mental health; how best to help parents; and where the money that came to town should be spent.
Some of these issues will never be resolved and may get knottier over time. In that sense, this New England village is emblematic of the nation.
Yet the town has united on many important matters such as building a new Sandy Hook school, preventing the publication of images from the crime scene, even adoptingnew rules on recreational firearms within Newtown's borders. From these agreements, there is a hopeful sense that, together, like our great country, we can find a way to ensure that Sandy Hook is not just remembered as a place of tragedy and victims, but one where change began.
For now, though, the families of Newtown, particularly those who lost so much, need to reflect and mourn in their own personal and private ways. It is encouraging that they joined forces this week to create a website with links to the various foundations they started to honor their loved ones.
Eventually this community will be ready to accept the embrace of the world. And it will give a big bear hug right back.
Rob Cox is co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit started after the school shooting, and editor in chief of Reuters Breakingviews.
Mark Barden still cannot believe his son Daniel is no longer here to cuddle on snowy winter mornings or challenge him to foosball games before school.
"In those first few seconds when I'm awake, I still have to think, 'Was this whole thing just a horrible dream?' " he says. "I still find myself trying to comprehend it, as we all are."
Barden lost his 7-year-old son on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 first graders, including Daniel, and six educators before turning the gun on himself.
In the year since the massacre, Mark, 49, Jackie, 47, and their children, James, 13, and Natalie, 11, have struggled without the little boy "who always worried about everyone else," says Mark. "It's been god-awful. And yet, we have had so much love and support from our family, neighbors and community."
Indeed, the Bardens have relied on their close-knit family – 40 relatives who have been there for them nonstop since the shooting – as well as new friends to help them through their darkest days. Connecticut State Troopers Dennis Keane and Tamia Tucker, who were assigned to help the family after the tragedy, have become close friends.
Keane, who was there when the Bardens learned they had lost Daniel, says, "There's not one day that I don't think of them. I put Daniel's mass card in my uniform pocket over my heart every single day."
Tucker feels the same way: "They have become my family," she says.
Help with Healing
Working to try to prevent another Newtown tragedy has also helped the Bardens in their "healing," says Mark. As a member of Sandy Hook Promise, the grassroots organization that parents formed after the shooting, Mark has traveled around the country to talk about "lessening gun violence and improving mental health care," he says. He is now promoting the group's new campaign, Parent Together, "to find solutions together about gun safety."
But it's the moving Facebook page that the Bardens' niece, Jackie Pickett, started after Daniel died – WWDD: What Would Daniel Do – and which promotes Daniel-like acts of kindness, that has given the Bardens the most hope.
"Just to read one comment from someone who says, 'I'm a different person now,' is amazing," says Pickett. Based on its success, the Bardens are creating a WWDD-inspired foundation, which will offer acts-of-kindness programs in schools and communities. "I believe I am following my calling, especially in honoring Daniel and the way he was truly compassionate," says Mark.
None of this makes their loss any easier. On the night before Daniel died, Jackie says, "I remember hugging him and thinking, 'Gosh, he feels so good. He is so warm and cuddly.' It's still so hard."
As more holidays without the boy they "still miss so much" approach, the Bardens will, once again, spend time with the people they love. "If we didn't have all of that, I don't know what we would do," says Mark.
You can give a once-in-a-lifetime holiday gift and support Sandy Hook Promise at the same time.
Bid on a Fender guitar signed by Pearl Jam, lunch with Nick Offerman during a visit to the set of NBC's "Parks and Recreation," a VIP New York Mets experience and many other unique gifts and experiences.
When I heard about the shootings in Sandy Hook, it was right after I had dropped my two preschool-aged boys off at school. I had my baby girl in the back seat of the car, and as we drove home, I listened to the updates on NPR. I began to sob immediately. As the story emerged, I cried more. I don’t think I did much that day but cry, and, after my children were home, hug them and try to hide my tears.
My oldest son is now in elementary school. His school is so much bigger, and, while I fully trust the faculty, a larger school feels that much more dangerous to me. The playground is wide open, as it should be. But in these days of school shootings, I now look at playgrounds and think about how easily children could be targeted.
It’s an awful, horrible thought.
Earlier this year, my boys and I discussed bullies. This was triggered by a few incidences of mild name-calling at school. Toward the end of the conversation, my six year-old said, “And what do we do if a man comes to school with a gun? What if the bully has a gun?”
This isn’t a question that any six-year-old should have to ask.
When I was six, my biggest bullying-related concerns had to do with people teasing me about my funny name or freckles. Kid stuff. Not men with high-capacity machines.
We talked about running away, telling grown ups, and yelling that someone has a gun. And then, as quickly as he’d asked the question, he asked if we could play. We went off to build a fort and pretend to be baby foxes.
I answered his question as well as I could, trying not to act panicked, holding back my tears about the men and boys who’ve come to schools with guns before.
But I also found myself wondering about what more I should do, what more our communities can do, to prevent anyone from coming to schools with a gun. In the days following the Sandy Hook shooting, I signed a few petitions, and felt overwhelmed by the immensity and complexity of the problems that have contributed to school shootings, from lack of mental health supports to gun control to a culture of violence. What, exactly, could one mother do to help?
One parent may not be able to do much. But, together, communities of parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, and leaders can do a great deal.
Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded and led by community members and parents who lost children in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, just launched Parent Together. Through Parent Together, they want to refocus the conversation on “sensible action and love.” Those are certainly things we could use more of these days.
Parent Together will be providing evidenced-based programs, tools, and supports for communities to help prevent gun violence. They’ll focus on mental wellness, healthy development, community connectedness, and gun safety — areas that can make our communities stronger and safer in so many ways.
You can join and make the Sandy Hook Promise to Parent Together, and then receive support and tools to use in your community. Those who sign up will be connected to local groups that can then take action.
It’s one way to move from feeling overwhelmed by a complex problem to action with fellow parents, neighbors, and friends, and to take action before the 12/14 anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook.
You can join Sandy Hook Promise here.
Barbara and Paul Daversa hosted an introduction and fund-raiser for Sandy Hook Promise at their Powder Horn Hill Road earlier this month, where members of the organization mingled with guests talking about the organization and answering questions and spent a few minutes previewing the organization’s new initiative, Parent Together, which was formally launched Nov. 12.
Sandy Hook Promise is one of the many organizations and foundations that arose out of the massacre of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Dec. 14. Among the representatives in attendance were Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan, and Bill Sherlach, whose wife, Mary, the school psychologist, were killed that day. Modeling itself after such social change organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Sandy Hook Promise’s goal is twofold, according to the website:
• Prevent the causes of gun violence by educating and empowering parents to make changes in their community that will not only prevent tragedies like Sandy Hook, but also the hundreds of thousands of other acts of gun violence every year in every state.
• Help our community through this tragedy by providing immediate and long-term financial, in-kind and other aid, on request, to families who lost loved ones, those wounded and others in our community impacted by this tragedy.
The Sandy Hook Promise begins:
“Our hearts will always be broken; our spirit will not.
“To truly honor the lives lost by turning our tragedy into a moment of transformation.”
Sandy Hook Promise seeks to engage in conversations and activities with people on all sides of gun-related issues, focusing on the areas of mental wellness, community connectedness and gun safety, seeking to reduce the overall levels of violence across the country. Parent Together calls on parents across America to “put aside their differences and focus on the common bond we all share — the love we have for our children — and use this as a starting point to help find and implement sensible solutions to prevent gun violence and save lives in our communities and country.” It will work with and connect other like-minded individuals and organizations across the country to build momentum for social change and, beginning after the new year, provide proven tools and techniques to help in this endeavor.
6-year-old Ben Wheeler was one of the first graders killed on December 14, 2012. As the first anniversary of that devastating day approaches, his parents, David and Francine, talk with Oprah about Ben and share how suffering can be a catalyst for transformation.
Both the great problems and the great blessings of the world are myriad. The alchemy of transmuting the former into the latter seems to cost us nearly all of our political capital these days — an investment we claim to make in the name of progress. But as we have seen in the past 11 months, the great problem of gun violence and the renewed debate over it sparked by the 12/14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School has not blessed us with progress or even a semblance of serious dialogue on the issue. Sadly, many of our most pressing problems are now thrown into great polemical ruts, where everyone clings to orthodoxy and no one gives an inch. After nearly a year of trying to navigate these ruts in the name of the innocents lost last December, Sandy Hook Promise has emerged with a new idea. Start the conversation not at points of departure, but at points of convergence: parents’ love for their children.
Sandy Hook Promise is calling its new initiative Parent Together, which will offer “proven tools and programs” to parents and all those dedicated to the safety and success of children in every community to help them foster “mental wellness, community connectedness, and gun safety.” Each of these goals, when pursued for the love of children rather than for the advancement of an ideology, for the passage or defeat of legislation, or for the cause of some ulterior strategy, taps our most authentic impulses, opens our minds, and dissolves our prejudices. How can mental health professionals detect the first signs of loneliness, estrangement, and isolation in children? What are the best practices in use by gun owners to safeguard their own children from accidents? What tools are available to educators and elected leaders to open the lines of communication in a community? Sandy Hook Promise wants to know.
Ultimately, Parent Together is about sharing the love of children, which is a powerful thing. It is why Newtown now evokes both great fears and open hearts in parents everywhere. We have seen the ruts where fear leads. Sandy Hook Promise is now interested in seeing where open hearts might lead. It is just one nascent organization from our relatively small community, but the strength of its message — that the protection of children is everyone’s business — has already attracted more than a quarter million people from across the country to its website (www.sandyhookpromise.org) to promise to Parent Together. It hopes to double that number by the 12/14 anniversary next month. Before too many more anniversaries pass, we hope that all the millions of promises made will be counted one day as promises kept.
Recently, there was the Los Angeles International Airport shooting—before that, it was the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard, the Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Aurora movie theater, Gabby Giffords in Tucson. Before that, it was Columbine High School, and so on. With every horrific story of gun violence, we vow to amend gun laws so that they require universal background checks and ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. We talk about increasing spending on mental health programs. Then, as the news coverage fades, so does our attention.
Meanwhile, gun violence continues to happen outside of the spotlight every single day. Using data from a dedicated Twitter feed that tracks “gun deaths in the [United States] regardless of cause and without comment” and figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Slate magazine estimates that “roughly 29,776 people have died from guns in the [United States] since the Newtown shootings”—that’s an average of more than 90 deaths per day between December 14, 2012, and November 8, 2013.
Bills drafted to address this problem—such as Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey’s bipartisan proposal to expand background checks on gun purchases last April—have failed, making it clear that there is powerful resistance to enacting measures that would help curb gun violence. Gun lobbyists, for example, believe restrictive legislation infringes on their constitutional rights, and the firearms industry wants to continue to enjoy legal protections, such as consumer product liability lawsuit immunity under the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, that other industries do not.
Despite these and many other challenges, some innovators are finding ways to intervene and disrupt the violence. To amplify the conversation as we mark the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, this series will share interviews with leaders who are spearheading initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence and preventing mass tragedies. These influencers come from diverse backgrounds—including media, politics, and entertainment—and are shaping how we think and talk about safety in our country; they are working across sectors to improve the state of our nation. Here’s a preview:
Reuters journalist Rob Cox, a resident of Newtown, Conn., helped form the Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting family members impacted by the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy and reducing the causes of gun violence to prevent future tragedies. The Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative aims to engage the technology industry in creating businesses that provide gun violence-reducing solutions. Inspired by the Initiative, several Silicon Valley investors formed the Smart Tech Foundation and recently launched the Smart Tech Firearms Challenge with a $1 million prize to entice entrepreneurs to focus on safety. A committee of technical and investment advisors reviews proposals, then pairs participants with development teams and awards prizes to the best ideas. This type of civil campaign is a first-of-its-kind and may provide a model for the technology industry to tackle other timely political issues.
Second-term Mayor of Philadelphia Michael A. Nutter has created an anti-violence agenda for Philadelphia, as well as other cities across the country. Along with New Orleans Mayor Landrieu, Mayor Nutter launched Cities United in 2011 as a collaborative effort among mayors, foundations, national nonprofits, federal agencies, and youth to interrupt the cycle of violence among urban African-American males. The initiative engages those most at-risk of committing violence in discussion about preventing future incidents, and develops practical recommendations for violence reduction at both the municipal and national level.
Musician, writer, and speaker Mike de la Rocha works in criminal justice, spirituality, and self-development, and uses his art as a way to stimulate conversation, build community, and inspire change. In 2012, he kicked off The Living Rooms Across America Tour, with stops in 10 of the most violent cities in the United States. Through a combination of living room performances and intimate discussions with policymakers, cultural influencers, and community leaders about reducing violence, de la Rocha hopes that the power of music will help shift public conversation. A documentary about the inaugural tour by filmmaker Dream Hampton is scheduled for release in 2014.
Through grassroots and localized efforts, these safety advocates are testing new strategies to address the issue of gun violence in America. We hope you’ll join us over the coming weeks to learn more about the creative efforts underway. It’s our belief that the more we talk about the role of guns in American society and acknowledge the reality of this situation, the closer we will come to making progress on this issue; the individuals featured in this series demonstrate that every one of us can play a role in preventing violence—we simply have to engage.