One month ago, Sandy Hook Promise unveiled our Parent Together initiative on Good Morning America. Since then, millions of people have heard our Parent Together message and celebrities like Snoop Dogg, Alyssa Milano, Sofia Vergara, Ed O'Neill and more have made the Promise to Parent Together. Countless media outlets have written about our efforts to build a community of people who put children first.
Recently, Nicole Hockley, David Wheeler, Mark and Jackie Barden, parents to Dylan, Ben, and Daniel, who were killed one year ago tomorrow at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Bill Sherlach, whose wife Mary Sherlach was one of the six educators killed, sat down to talk about their loss and their work with Sandy Hook Promise to build a safer world for all children.
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.