This article was originally published in December 2015, during the lead-up to the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
One week after the massacre, Chris Kelsey got a strange call from a Connecticut state trooper. Kelsey was the town of Newtown’s tax assessor, a big guy with a black goatee and a buzz cut who looks more like a retired linebacker than an accountant. In the wake of the shooting he had volunteered to oversee the charitable donations and care packages that arrived. It quickly became his full time job. The votives and balloons and flowers and artwork and teddy bears had begun to gather in bunches hours after the tragedy. That was on a Friday. Through the weekend, and especially after President Obama spoke at Newtown High School on Sunday night, more and more people left their notes and gifts of condolence wherever they could. When Kelsey walked into the Town Hall on Main Street early the following week, all he saw were flowers and balloons and teddy bears, many dressed in holiday garb. Christmas was 11 days away.
The deluge was even heavier at what locals called “the Hook,” the half mile of Riverside Road that begins at a diner and ends at the Sandy Hook Fire Department, where families had gathered immediately after the shooting and learned that 20 children and six educators at the elementary school up the hill had been murdered. Every few feet along the road grew mounds of grief. Within a week, the makeshift shrines’ borders spilled into one another, turning a collection of temporary memorials into a single, multihued mass, 260-feet long and 10-to 12-feet deep, crowding the sidewalks and inching toward the streets.
It astounded Kelsey, the kindness of people. It also worried him. One week after the shooting, Newtown didn’t really have the space to house such generosity.
Then, around midday on December 21, 2012, Kelsey got the call from the state trooper.
He could not believe what the man told him; surely, the officer was mistaken. Nevertheless, Kelsey told him to send the package to the city’s Parks and Recreation building. He would swing by to check it out in the morning.
When he arrived the following day, he saw for himself that it was true: Some group really had delivered $27,000 worth of toys to Newtown. They’d been dumped next to the single back door of the building. The toys, in boxes or individual wrappings, were heaped everywhere, on the building’s small loading dock and on the ground around it, and then on the concrete and grass beyond that. The Parks Department could store perhaps up to 1,000-square feet of material. Kelsey knew that wouldn’t hold all the packages.
“What the hell am I going to do with this?” he thought.
Only in hindsight does that first week become significant, a line dividing before and after. Before, say, Tuesday, December 18, the majority of the care packages were hand-delivered, from people in town, or neighboring towns, or at least within driving distance of one of the many vigils at which people gathered those first few days. After that Tuesday, the packages from everyone who couldn’t get to Newtown in person started to arrive. Tuesday was the third business day after Friday, and so it was the first day that packages sent by regular mail began to appear — and to constitute what would become a benevolent burden for a town already struggling to carry a terrible load.
Teddy bears and the paper snowflakes from a Facebook campaign and origami cranes and letters and poems and illustrations and banners – all of it arriving in three UPS trucks and three FedEx trucks on Tuesday. That’s when Kelsey had an emergency meeting of sorts with Carole Ross, the town’s human resources administrator. By Wednesday, he’d secured 80,000 feet of storage space in an industrial complex near the town’s border. Then he watched as even that building filled up over the following week.
Kelsey kept getting calls from people who’d received more than they could handle. The Reverend Matthew Crebbin at the Congregational Church had 20-by-25-feet Sunday School rooms filled from floor to ceiling with teddy bears and toys. The post office had to shut down its facility to process the letters it received by the thousands; the material was diverted to a regional sorting plant, one of only two massive complexes in the state. And even there, the volume of letters forced Kelsey and other city officials to set up a system in which mail sorters from surrounding towns donated their time to help parse Newtown’s mail. Written proposals from the public — to donate 26 trees or 26 park benches or 26 crosses — reached 600 pages. Kelsey and his staff began to work through those, too.
“I was never sick of it,” Kelsey says. “I would definitely use the word overwhelmed.”
Ten days after the shooting, he met one of the families who’d lost a child. The father showed up at the Parks facility and said he’d heard about the storage space. He and his wife, deep in their grief, hadn’t had the presence of mind to go shopping for their other son, an 8-year-old in third grade, and now it was Christmas Eve.
Could he call his wife and bring their son?
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Of course, Kelsey said.
When they arrived, Kelsey watched the boy with floppy brown hair climb a 14-foot-high pile of teddy bears. Ten days earlier, the boys’ wail at the news of his brother’s death had been so piercing and raw that his parents still heard it, but now he climbed the mound of toys for the fun of it, tossing down whatever he wanted, his eyes alive.
The next day Kelsey got a text message from the father: “Thank you for saving Christmas.”
The packages did not cease in the new year, arriving just as often on pallets and in industrial-sized boxes. In all, 65,000 teddy bears were sent to a town of 27,000. There were nine tractor-trailers full of paper snowflakes, and half a million letters. Ashley Maynor, a documentary filmmaker who’d lost friends at the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, in which 32 people died, came to Newtown ostensibly to make a film about grief, but pursued a project instead on the sheer amount of stuff that inundated the town. Working with librarians who’d established the memorial in Blacksburg, Virginia, she concluded that Newtown received 10 times the material that arrived at Virginia Tech, a big state university with, at one point, roughly three dozen people processing the donations. The team in Newtown was one quarter as large.
Kelsey worked up to 90 hours a week. He didn’t eat. He barely slept. “I bet I lost 30 pounds,” he says. Over time, the totems of condolence began to haunt as much as they helped. He told Maynor that coming to the office was like “living in a wake.” The crew sorting the letters that continued to pile up felt the same thing. A process had been established, contained within it a pledge: If someone had taken the time to write a letter to Newtown, someone in Newtown would read it. All 500,000 of them. Every day, across two shifts, volunteers on letter duty sat and read, crying. Someone, Kelsey said, always seemed to be crying.
The letters carried so many visceral reactions that one resident, Yolie Moreno, proposed a project: She would photograph each one, and present them as either a digital or physical memorial, “an act of love,” she says. The project was deeply personal, and not for reasons the public might suspect. When Moreno was 11, her 16-year-old brother had died in a car accident. She recalled the apathy the world showed her grief, and saw now its unmistakable opposite, gestures that might give the Newtown families the solace she ached for as a child. “If the entire world knows about your tragedy and sympathizes with it?” she says. “I mean, wow.”
Communities that endure tragedy develop an archivist’s impulse: First comes the desire to preserve the remnants of what the lost ones left behind, and then to safekeep the condolences that arrive in the wake of the tragedy. At Texas A&M, for instance, in the days after the collapse of a 59-foot bonfire in 1999 that killed 12 people, students crawled on their hands and knees in the rain collecting every stray scrap of paper from every shrine of condolence. At Virginia Tech, after the 2007 shooting, the university preserved 90,000 lots of material, in which each lot might constitute a single item, or 100.
But in Newtown, the people designated with the duty of preservation were soon smothered with the reality of more packages delivered by orders of magnitude than after any other mass shooting in America. “People would say, ‘Oh, let’s send snowflakes to Newtown, and hands of love, and boxes of paper cranes,’” Moreno says. “And they’re beautiful, they really are. And then you get thousands of them. Thousands. And then you start to think, ‘I don’t need any more cranes or any more letters or any more quilts or any more jewelry.’ It was just too much.”
By the spring of 2013, First Selectman Pat Llodra pitched the idea of “sacred soil,” the incineration of great swaths of the material. The scale of things sent to Newtown, Llodra argued at the time, kept people from moving on with their lives. Everywhere were reminders, everywhere Kelsey’s “living wake.” Llodra’s plan was a “cremation” of the stuff, she said, the ashes of which would be worked into the foundation of the forthcoming permanent memorial.
Some people protested Llodra’s idea, most notably Newtown illustrator Ross MacDonald, who created a Tumblr page and worked with Mother Jones in an attempt to save the notes people wrote. Those closest to the material, though, saw the appeal of Llodra’s plan. For Moreno, photographing every note, much less preserving each one, became physically impossible. She ultimately shot them by group, by the city or state or even country of origin. Still, she felt as if she were drowning in paper. Llodra’s idea began to look like a life raft. “Frankly,” she says, “I thought it was a brilliant idea.” The volume of letters had begun to negate their comfort. One of the 26 mothers had told her, “I can’t read any more.”
Chris Kelsey, overseeing among other things the 65,000 stuffed animals, was also onboard with Llodra’s idea. “What are you going to do with that many teddy bears?” he asks. By the time Llodra floated the sacred soil plan, Kelsey had begun to execute an ad hoc diversion strategy. Following the wishes of the 26 families, he had started shipping the teddy bears to children’s hospitals and orphanages, first in Bridgeport, Connecticut, then throughout New York State, then across the country. When a Newtown farmer, Pete Sepe, told Kelsey about the books and medical supplies that he and his wife sent to Kenya each year, Kelsey sent some bears there, and then to Afghanistan, Haiti, and Jamaica.
There is a phrase in psychology called “helper’s high,” in which people perform altruistic acts because those acts make them feel good. Kelsey saw that every day. “I understand it: People want to do something,” he says. “But a lot of people think that because they bought a teddy bear, they did something. I look back on it and I say, ‘You’re really not helping.’” In white-collar Newtown, most children don’t want for toys; what the town needed cannot be bought. By Good Friday 2013, Kelsey had forwarded the last shipment of teddy bears out of Newtown.
A sampling of everything — letters, cards, artwork, banners, and toys — was left behind for the permanent memorial, the site and design of which is yet to be determined. The rest would become part of the sacred soil. By the fall of 2013, the rumor of the big burn became a reality: The stuff began moving by the semi-load to an incinerator in Bridgeport.
Maynor’s documentary shows Moreno performing a last rites of sorts for the material. “It burned so fast,” she remembers. The powdery ashes that emerged, from four tractor trailers of stuff, fit inside a three-foot-by-three-foot box. The ashes currently reside at an “undisclosed location,” says Fred Hurley, the general manager of Newtown’s Highway Department, who accompanied Moreno to the site the day of the burn and is now charged with the ashes’ safekeeping. “A lot of sensitive feeling went into this, and it needs to be treated with some reverence,” he says. “I don’t want to see something on the Internet where you can buy a vial of ash from Newtown.”
The mass shooting this month in San Bernardino, California, led Kelsey and Moreno to not only think about the victims and the survivors, but also the packages the city would soon receive. “I think about that stuff, yeah, the planning of all this, when I see those temporary shrines on TV,” Kelsey says. The packages, he now believes, “just exacerbate everything.” The best of intentions, he now knows, can alone never salve the deepest hurts.
Maynor completed her film, and the amount of stuff she saw in Newtown, and how none of it reformed any gun law, led her to develop an app called Cranes for Change, which directs people to write a letter to their congressman rather than send gifts to those in grief. “The idea is this: Instead of overwhelming the victims’ communities, let’s overwhelm those in a position to effect change,” she says. Moreno feels the same way. She never sent a care package or a letter to survivors in California. But last week, as she headed to Washington, D.C., for an annual gun-violence vigil, she was sure to remember to pack a protest sign.