“At the end of the day, Newtown is still this small, quiet little community which drew families here in the first place.”
Kristen Marshall knows what Newtown is. She also knows what it’s not. A mother of three young children and a Sandy Hook resident for the past eight years, the Ridgefield native said if nothing else, the December tragedy that shook her town has brought her community closer together.
“It’s a kinder, warmer place than ever before,” she said.
It’s not a place where people keep to themselves, afraid of or detached from their neighbors. It’s not a place where television cameras are perched on every street corner. It’s not a place where mass murders happen everyday.
For Ms. Marshall, 42, Newtown is still an “amazing place to raise a family.”
“I would say that after this event, how everyone in town has reacted and pulled together, I want to live in Newtown more than ever,” she said.
That’s not to say there isn’t a heavy shadow over the entire community — one that cannot be shaken.
“It’s one day at a time,” she said.
The real story of Newtown is one of hope, Ms. Marshall said. It’s one of resilience, faith and kindness. While its residents continue to bear the burden of a tragedy too dark for words, there is something profound emerging. It has called together people from all walks of life to nurture the healing process and reinforce a fragile hope held tenuously together by acts of kindness and love.
The worst of humanity seems to have brought out the best of humanity, Ms. Marshall said.
• • •
Kristina Applegate knew she needed to do something. The horror of watching details unfold on Dec. 14, 2012, was just too much for this mother of two young kids. Twenty-six people dead. Twenty of them children.
Having grown up in Ridgefield, she found herself far removed from her home state while living in bucolic Vermont.
“Very soon after this event occurred, every one of us was trying to figure out how we could help,” Ms. Applegate said.
She is the founder of Kids Share Workshops, an organization that works with children who have experienced trauma to express their creativity through book-making in a cross-cultural context. It started in 2007, and Ms. Applegate has completed projects in several states and countries, including Nicaragua, Guatemala and Costa Rica.
Ms. Applegate wanted to do something, but the level of trauma in Newtown far surpassed her comfort zone. She also wanted the community to invite her, she said, as she didn’t want to impose upon them at such a dire moment.
“I feel like I can do something good with this,” she recalled. “ I did not want to go on my own, I wanted to be asked. I wanted the community to hear about it, and decide if it was a good idea.”
She posted something on Facebook to test the waters. It turned out to be a good idea, according to Lauren Lee and Jennifer Ponte Canning, both Ridgefield High School graduates who had reconnected to Ms. Applegate at a recent school reunion.
Ms. Lee, now living in Warren, had known Dawn Hochsprung, Sandy Hook Elementary’s principal and one of Adam Lanza’s 26 victims. The two had worked together at a middle school, and her husband had known Ms. Hochsprung for years prior.
The three women met to figure out how they could work together.
“I went to that first lunch meeting and [Applegate] and I and Lauren just clicked immediately,” recalled Ms. Canning, whose background is in journalism and public relations. “It was pretty much immediately apparent that we had shared passions and that we actually work really well together.”
A plan was coming together, but there was a missing piece. They needed someone who could handle the depth of trauma that appeared insurmountable. Enter Mary Hamilton, a Darien resident and art therapist who owns Art for Therapy in Westport.
Ms. Hamilton had already organized an art therapy and reading program workshop along with psychologist Amber Kemp-Gerstel in early January for Newtown children aged 4 to 7.
“We all need to find meaning in the suffering and grave loss of this tragedy, and in some small way by offering a safe outlet for families to come together and enjoy their community, we hope that this local event will help in the healing process,” Ms. Hamilton said at that time.
There was also an obvious need for the program, the women said. Psychologists and psychiatrists from all around had been coming to Newtown offering free services. Kids Share began to take on a life of its own.
“We had to turn away volunteers,” Ms. Applegate said, referencing the strong outpouring of support from the area.
• • •
Kristen Marshall’s 7-year-old daughter was in the classroom across the hall from the first grade rooms that Adam Lanza chose to target. On the school’s intercom, which had been turned on once the carnage ensued, gunfire and screams echoed through the entire school.
“There’s survivor’s guilt,” Ms. Marshall said. “Why are my kids OK and untouched and others aren’t? You start scenario-playing in your head: What if he turned to his right instead of left, it would have been my daughter’s class.”
Compelled through a combination of emotions and realizations, Marshall decided to help. She volunteered with Kids Share, and her three children participated. That experience brought her comfort, she said.
“Just to see my kids interacting with their friends, showcasing their creativity, opening up about how they feel, sharing with others — it was pretty powerful,” Ms. Marshall said.
While working with the children, Ms. Hamilton, the art therapist, had to be acutely aware of the tiniest signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and other potential problems.
“We had some children disclose what they’ve seen,” Ms. Hamilton said. “There were several kids who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School who saw the aftermath of what happened. They’re 7-year-old kids.”
The project was broken up into chapter groups, with each group focusing on a creative theme — a superhero team, a time travel team, an island team and a kingdom team.
“Many of the children have inventive and surprising characters to share later in their book,” Ms. Applegate wrote on the Kids Share website, as she documented the daily activities through a blog.
Word about the project also spread to Manhattan and Brooklyn, where filmmaker Nina Day and photographer Salome Oggenfuss got involved. Ms. Oggenfuss spent three days in Newtown filming the project for a short documentary directed by Ms. Day. The film is expected to be finished by August, with a premiere showing in Newtown sometime after.
“The focus is to celebrate the effort of a community coming together,” Ms. Day said. “People coming together to celebrate who they are and where they come from is valid no matter what.”
Ms. Oggenfuss agreed.
“To see how creating communities can really make change happen is inspiring,” she said. “It’s such a big part of moving forward — to work together and help out one another.”
As word spread even farther, help continued pouring in. Frank Brummett of BerylMartin, a printing and design company based in Indiana, has offered to produce an initial run of Kids Share Newtown books for free.
Kids Share founder Ms. Applegate said the project has inspired her, Ms. Lee and Ms. Canning to make the organization a full-time project. All women volunteered their time over the past few months, organizing and creating the Newtown art therapy project.
“It’s incredible,” Ms. Applegate said. “You’re touching people… When I did my first book, I realized that [the children] felt like little rock stars. I thought, ‘I can do this.’ It might help them to follow their dreams more. It empowers people to be heard.”
The women hope to become established by being “picked up” by a children’s book publishing company, such as Scholastic, she said.
In the meantime, the lasting effects of the Kids Share Newtown project remain part of the glue that keeps the community together, said Sandy Hook mother Marshall.
“What I like about Kids Share,” she said, “is that it’s a way for kids to tell the whole world what they think about their community, in their words, instead of the news reporting on their outsiders’ impression.”
When a room of parents and children were asked during Kids Share to express in a single word what they thought Newtown was, Ms. Marshall’s daughter was one of the first to raise her hands.
“Safe,” her daughter said.
More info: KidsShareWorkshops.com, ArtForTherapy.org, NinaDay.com, SalomeOggenfuss.com, BerylMartin.com.