Newtown healing from the inside out
Recovery, future will be forged by residents
Updated 1:51 pm, Thursday, December 27, 2012
As the world watches Newtown's heartache on TV and listens to its story told by strangers, the real healing is taking place where it always has -- in the embraces, tears and kisses of Newtown's people.
Sarah Ferris is one of those people. Her family traces its Newtown roots to the early 1700s, when 36 men from Milford and Stratford first settled here. Today, the Ferris family runs the last operating dairy farm in Fairfield County and scoops the best homemade ice cream around.
On Friday night, Ferris helped organize a luminaria memorial service at Fairfield Hills, the former state mental hospital turned into a complex of town offices, athletic fields, walking trails and the Newtown Youth Academy sports facility.
Like everyone else here, Ferris was shocked and saddened by the massacre of 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14. So she decided to do something about it.
"I woke up the next morning and this unreality was our new reality. I saw how much the town was hurting and I knew we needed to do something," said Ferris, a junior at George Washington University.
"We wanted to create a place where everyone could come together. My dad keeps calling it Newtown's 9/11," Ferris said. "We thought the one-week mark would be a good time to get together. We need to grieve together. We don't want the media in our faces, but we don't want them to forget, either."
Despite stirring examples of sympathy from around the country and around the world -- the aluminum trays of food, 26 Christmas trees decorated by countless hands -- Newtown will heal from the inside out, because that's the only way to balance the ledger of a broken heart.
To even the most stout folks here, the best salve for these wounds -- the only salve, really -- is a blend of time and faith, applied in generous doses from neighbors, family and friends.
How Newtown emerges from this tragedy has little to do with how the town was seen by the world on Dec. 14.
What really matters is how Newtown heals itself one year, 10 years, even 20 years from now, when the surviving Sandy Hook School kids are all grown up and the families who lost loved ones are still in our prayers.
This is the real measure of a community's healing.
What happens when the TV cameras stop rolling and the trucks full of toys stop coming? That's when the deepest healing will begin in Sandy Hook, Botsford, Dodgingtown, Hawleyville, Mt. Pleasant and the other neighborhoods here that will never forget this shooting. Or its collateral damage.
And what happens now that Newtown has buried its heart with its children and heroes? This story can't be told in a week or two. Ultimately, it will be told by the families who call Newtown home -- on their terms and with their timeline.
The tears start all over
Everyone in Newtown was affected by this shooting. No one was immune from the awful heartache of that day.
If you live in Newtown and don't know anyone directly touched by this tragedy, maybe your neighbor goes to church with one of the families. Or perhaps your son's best friend played baseball with one of the victims. Or maybe your daughter went to summer camp with one of these kids.
Suddenly, you realize this could have been your little boy or little girl. Or your grandson or granddaughter. And the pursed lips and the tears start all over again.
Newtown is more than a Currier and Ives Christmas card stained by a gunman. It is more than choppers flying overhead and TV remote trucks turning Treadwell Park into a scene from "E.T."
The real Treadwell Park is where parents stand with their morning coffee while their kids turn blue in the pool -- and love it -- taking swim lessons in water much too chilly for grown-ups.
Treadwell isn't just a makeshift operations center for the news media. It's where kids play lacrosse and soccer on the artificial turf field and celebrate birthday parties under the big pavilion.
After the second-worst school shooting in U.S. history, Newtown is not some cursed address. It's a wonderful place for families and friends to be thankful for each other, especially now.
Folks here put lawn chairs along Main Street and Queen Street to reserve their spots for the state's largest and best-known Labor Day parade. They watch their kids scramble for candy thrown from the back of floats. They watch helium balloons make a run for the clouds while the Newtown High School marching band finishes the last tracks of summer.
Living in Newtown means pulling $2 out of your pocket and handing over a red punch card to watch movies at Edmond Town Hall. It means starting Memorial Day weekend with the Great Pootatuck Duck Race in Sandy Hook and cheering as thousands of rubber ducks are dumped into the water.
For too many people watching TV these days, Newtown is the darkest place in the world. And for a long time, it will be -- but not always.
Think of Newtown like an eclipse. You can't block out the sun forever. The people here will make sure of it as they part the sky with their prayers.
In the coming months, Newtown will pay it forward when no one is watching, just as it should be in this town.
But it's much harder to control the message that Sandy Hook is more than a massacre to those who live outside the 06470 or 06482 ZIP codes.
The tooth fairy still comes
"I have complete confidence in the people of Newtown," said Herb Rosenthal, who like his father, Jack, served as first selectman. "I believe that Newtown will not be known or defined by this horrific tragedy, but rather for the beautiful children, the heroic teachers and first responders, for our support and compassion, for our coming together, our resilience and for our ability to overcome this unimaginable loss of our loved ones."
Rosenthal, who sat in the first selectman's chair for a decade, rubbed his chin for a moment Thursday and told the story of his 6-year-old grandson, the little boy who goes to Middle Gate Elementary School.
Although Middle Gate is way on the other side of town, there is a shared innocence that bonds these children.
"My grandson told me that the next time the tooth fairy comes, he wants to give his tooth to the little boy who didn't have any front teeth," Rosenthal said.
The photo of 7-year-old Daniel Barden, the first-grader you can almost hear whistling when he spoke, is one of the most enduring images of this tragedy.
While unprecedented grief continues to burrow into hearts here, this was not the first time that Sandy Hook has fallen victim to tragedy.
In the early 1950s, a terrible house fire in Sandy Hook left eight or nine people dead, Rosenthal said. In 1955, while Sandy Hook Elementary School was being built, then-First Selectman A. Finn "Slim" Dickinson visited the work site and was accidentally struck and killed by a dump truck that was backing up. The town later named Dickinson Park in his honor as well as the road leading into Sandy Hook School.
In 1975, Donald Krosky was charged with two counts of murder after the 49-year-old operator of the old Sandy Hook Hotel shot and killed two men. The men broke into the back of the hotel and came to rough him up over a lease gone bad. Krosky was later acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
Healing starts with children
"The kids are a big part of the rebuilding and the healing," Shpunt said. "Sports is something where the kids get to interact, have fun and stop thinking about this for a while."
Last Monday, school officials, youth sports officials and the Newtown Youth Academy came up with a plan to offer open gym time for local kids at NYA.
Two thousand Newtown kids showed up over the day-long session, Shpunt said. The event was so successful, the organizers ran it after school the rest of the week.
There were pick-up basketball games and races around the indoor track, dodgeball games and little kids ducking under a parachute when it popped up full of air.
Coaches came from across Connecticut and New York to help supervise the kids and run activities. Two of the Harlem Globetrotters even showed up to play basketball.
Dozens of students from the University of New Haven came to donate time. There were fraternity and sorority members, the men's lacrosse team and countless other students wearing UNH shirts.
In the lobby, meanwhile, a long table fit for the biggest Thanksgiving gathering was stacked with donated food for the kids and their families. There were sports drinks and yogurt tubes. There were bagels, deli platters, fresh fruit and cookies.
And just when you thought you'd seen it all, another delivery guy would come in carrying a stack of pizzas six boxes high.
"It's going to take a while, but eventually, I think the people in Newtown are going to get over it," said Shpunt, 64. "A lot of people say, `Why here?' There's no answer to that question. This could've happened anywhere in the country. We've seen it happen anywhere."
Shpunt grew up in the center of Sandy Hook and lives there to this day. He has watched Newtown change from primarily a rural community to a more affluent, white-collar town.
"When I was a kid, I can remember guys in Newtown living out on the farms driving their mule and buggy into town to get supplies," Shpunt said. "That's what Newtown was like in those days. It was a farm town in the late 1950s, early 1960s. It wasn't as developed as it is today."
Newtown's transformation from a sleepy, rural community to a bedroom community for lower Fairfield County and New York City began in the 1980s and 1990s.
Many young, prosperous families came to town and built big houses on big lots. In perfect lockstep with these moves were good schools. These new families wanted a first-quality education for their children, and they were willing to pay for it.
"There are a lot of young families here now and a lot of the Realtors claim that they came here because of the schools," Rosenthal said. "It's the parents with children that really seem like the closest-knit part of the town.
"My son and daughter in-law live here with my three grandchildren. ... I know the activities and the things they do, they're always together with other families.
"With the growth of the community, there's been more emphasis on children and children's activities. When I first moved here in 1953, there were about 5,000 or 6,000 people," Rosenthal said. "There were a lot of farms and open space. It was a pretty small town.
"I used to laugh when my children told me there's nothing to do in Newtown. `You think there's nothing to do now? You should have seen it when I was growing up,' " Rosenthal said. "I always found it a warm and loving community."
Today, Newtown is more than "the quintessential New England town" as it's been portrayed by many national news outlets.
In fairness, it's hard to argue with that image when all anyone has seen are live shots in front of Edmond Town Hall or the Newtown General Store. Certainly, Main Street and The Borough, the town center, have that flavor.
But the Newtown of the 21st century also has mobile homes and multimillion-dollar homes. There are residents who land six-figure bonuses this time of year and others who rely on local food pantries for their holiday dinner.
The Dec. 14 school shooting at Sandy Hook School erased these socio-economic lines and replaced them with a crippling, collective grief. There is a galvanizing unity in this shared sadness, people tell me.
"This is a horrible tragedy and we'll never forget it. Certainly for the families, I don't know how you ever heal that hole in your heart after something like this," Rosenthal said. "But I do believe the town will continue to be that same kind of caring place.
"Hopefully, the message that will move forward is that not only did a tragedy occur in Newtown, but this is a community that cares about its people and took care of each other and healed. I'm confident that will happen."
Children embody the renewal of hope, joy and goodness in Newtown. Through them, the future is not marked with an asterisk.
Even with four elementary schools in Newtown -- Sandy Hook, Middle Gate, Head O' Meadow and Hawley -- the state's second-largest town based on area is still a small town of 27,000 people.
For more than 300 years, the people of Newtown have come together to celebrate weddings and births. To that end, they have also shared in the sadness of death.
Never in Newtown's history has a tragedy of this magnitude or this horror knocked folks straight to their knees. But as the residents of Newtown begin to get back up, to heal before our very eyes, there is a powerful message wrapped in this suffering.
"The bad part of having all those TV cameras around was the sheer intrusiveness of it -- feeling smothered and having them stick microphones in everyone's face," Rosenthal said. "But I think as the days went on, they also saw people coming together and supporting these families."
This is the Newtown that will not be defined by a shooting, but rather, strengthened by it. This is the community that will hold up its heart like a torch, a small town's eternal flame.
There were thousands of these healing flames at Friday night's luminaria vigil at Fairfield Hills. By themselves, they were actually pretty small.
Together, as a sign to the world Newtown will always remember those 26 souls from Sandy Hook School, they were powerful and profound.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 203-394-2957, @briankoonz