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Documenting an Outpouring of Grief in Newtown

Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 first graders and six educators dead. WNPR will bring you stories throughout this week looking at the impact of that tragedy on our community.

We start with a report about the staggering response to the shooting from all over the world. Several new websites documenting that response will launch for the first time in the coming days. There are also several photo exhibits taking place around Connecticut.

The outpouring of grief began just hours after the shooting. Outdoor memorials began to spring up all over: angels, stars, banners, and flowers. Photographer Robert Carley said, “I started seeing tributes around my town in Darien, and then around Fairfield County. I took my camera and I recorded as many tributes as I could find.”

Credit Robert Carley
This "love star" Newtown memorial on a telephone pole appeared near the Newtown cemetery.
Credit Robert Carley
High school students created this Newtown mural memorial.

Carley is setting up an exhibit of his photos at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. He said he wanted to document these public expressions of grief.

He did a similar thing following the September 11 terrorist attacks. "My lesson from 9/11," he said, "is that things don’t last too long. I want to be able to preserve them for other people. Ten years from now, 20 years from now, people can look back, and see what happened, and how people reacted."

One image is of a teddy bear strapped to a street sign holding a cross. Another photo shows clusters of angels. In a third, you see a banner that reads, "There is no foot so tiny that it can’t leave an imprint on this world."

Credit Robert Carley
A Newtown tribute in the form of angels.

"I think the most moving, for me," Carley said, "was a bouquet of roses that were carved out of wood, with the face of each victim imprinted. They were placed on a telephone pole right in the center of Sandy Hook."

Credit Robert Carley
A Newtown memorial in the form of carved wooden roses, with faces imprinted, attached to a telephone pole.

The outdoor memorials were just a start. Next came the gifts -- tidal waves of gifts; tens of thousands of toys, school supplies, bicycles, sleds, and more than 60,000 teddy bears. Then came the written expressions of grief: letters, cards, poetry, stories, and artwork shipped, and sometimes even driven halfway across the country to Connecticut; paintings, posters, and life-size sculptures.

Credit Diane Orson / WNPR
Boxes of gifts sent to Newtown.
Credit Ross MacDonald
The Newtown municipal center has many letters sent to the town.

Newtown resident Yolie Moreno volunteered to help local officials manage and document the materials. "I can’t explain to you how much stuff was sent in," Moreno said. "Someone would start a program like Hearts for Newtown, or Snowflakes for Newtown, or Healing Hands for Newtown. Then we would just get hundreds of thousands of hands, hundreds of thousands of hearts -- I mean, tractor trailers full of snowflakes."

For weeks, the material lined the hallways in local municipal buildings in town. Eventually, it was divided up. Most was moved into a large warehouse. Xerox offered support to build a website, and Moreno and a group of volunteer photographers began to document the items.

Moreno said, "The goal was always to share this love that came into our town, the only thing that so many people could do, and just desperate to let everyone know that they care."

At the C. H. Booth Library in the center of Newtown, 19-year-old Dylan Jones worked on another kind of documentation project. He sat by a scanner. "I’m scanning archival letters," he said. "This is from England." How many had he done? "Close to 800, so far," he said.

Credit Ross MacDonald
A child's letter to Newtown.

This project is called the Condolence Archive. Volunteers work under the guidance of professional archivists and librarians. They have also consulted with people who managed materials in the aftermath of the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.

The project’s soon-to-be launched website will allow visitors to easily search and find a representative sample of items that came into Newtown. It's a collaboration with the Connecticut State Library and Iron Mountain, an information management services company.

Samantha Joseph, Director of Corporate Responsibility, said Iron Mountain believes in the importance of preserving culture and heritage. "It's hard to know how that material will play a role in the future," she said, "but there’s no question that as that community continues to heal and grieve over time, there will be an important need to access that information and those condolences."

Items you will see on these websites have been safely stored away. Other materials -- the public tributes and things that could not be given away -- have been incinerated. Town officials said the ash will become part of a sacred soil at a future memorial.

Resident Sharon L. Cohen has written a book about the myriad foundations, support groups, and projects that sprang up in Newtown after the shooting. She said efforts like these to document the outpouring of response are not only important for the historical record, but also help people to heal. "What I found," she said, "was that these activities did help the community as a whole come together at a time when they were hurting, at a time when they needed to talk to each other."

Back at the library, reference head Andy Forsyth said creative expression in the wake of tragedy helps people start to comprehend the incomprehensible. "It sounds very corny to say that we’re a human family. But to receive and see materials coming from around the globe that someone put their heart and soul into, it really makes you stop and realize the connectivity, and that a really horrendous and evil act won’t break that."

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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