5-year anniversary of Sandy Hook shooting

When just saying ‘I’m from Newtown’ can be a cross to bear

Suzanne Davenport still wears a memorial bracelet and has a green ribbon with a “Be Kind” magnet on her car to honour the 26 children and educators killed at the local elementary school. A resident of Newtown’s Sandy Hook section, she knew some of the victims, and she knows survivors.

But like many of her neighbours, Davenport often avoids telling strangers she is from Newtown.

“I was recently at a wedding shower, and a woman saw my bracelet and said, ‘Oh, you’re from Sandy Hook?” Davenport said. “And she started in. I said, ‘This is a shower, let’s just let it be a happy occasion.’ She started in again and I had to say, ‘I really don’t think this is the time or the place to be discussing this.’”

Five years into the town’s recovery, residents have adopted various strategies to deal with being from a place whose name has become synonymous with horrifying tragedy. A young man gunned down 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, 2012.

When they travel into the world beyond the otherwise bucolic bedroom community of 28,000 people, some Newtown residents keep their roots to themselves to avoid debates over gun control and mental health. Others have found themselves dealing with awkward silences, or accepting condolences on behalf of an entire town.

It can be just as difficult to get no reaction when telling people they are from Newtown, said Eileen Byrnes, a yoga instructor who has lived in town for 30 years.

“I want to say to them, ‘Did you forget? Do you not remember what happened? How can you not know that this happened?” she said. “So, when you are outside of Newtown, it’s a very interesting dance of how to react or how not to react.”

It’s a familiar burden to people from other communities that have become known to the world through mass shootings, including at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, and more recently in San Bernardino, California, and Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Jane Hammond, who was superintendent of schools for Jefferson County, Colorado, at the time of the 1999 shooting at Columbine, said the connection to the massacre became inescapable for the entire district.

“We had 144 schools in our district, and people decided the name of the district was Columbine,” she said.

“I don’t think the pain goes away. You learn to live with it,” Hammond said. “But anniversaries are hard. The only tears I shed at the time were at the children’s funerals and a staff member’s funeral. On the fifth anniversary, I sobbed.”

At Virginia Tech, where a gunman killed 32 people in April 2007, the tragedy will always be identified with the university — but so will the way the school responded, spokesman Mark Owczarski said.

“I think people saw the true character of Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Orlando; more recently Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs,” he said. “It’s what people see in that time that defines you. People saw our community coming together and standing together.”

Pat Llodra, who led Newtown through the tragedy as the head of its governing board, said most people she meets just want to express how deeply they were touched, and she gladly accepts the grace of the outside world.

But, she said, there is a delicate balance between honouring the past and being defined by it. The town has always been a safe place for families, with good schools, she said.

“This is something that happened to us; we didn’t cause it,” said Llodra, who recently retired. “It’s part of our history, but it is not who we are.”

The tragedy is still present for residents in different ways, said Mary Ann Jacob, who was a library clerk in the school the day of the shooting and hid students in a supply closet.

“Some days it sits quietly by your side, and you acknowledge it and know it’s there and move on with your day,” she said. “Other days it’s a really hard, difficult burden to bear.”

Robin Fitzgerald once took a group of older Newtown kids to Michigan to compete in an international problem-solving competition. The reaction to her team — with coaches and parents constantly trying to acknowledge the Sandy Hook shooting — became a problem.

“Our kids just wanted to go and be just who they were,” she said. “We felt like we had to get between our kids and people who were legitimately just trying to give them love. They would burst into tears, and our kids had no idea what to do, what to say.”

Some improvements have come from the town’s trauma, Jacob said. Neighbors have gotten to know one another, and many have become involved in charities or community projects.

It’s a lesson, she said, the outside world can learn from Newtown.

“Stop telling me how bad you feel, and do something,” said Jacob, who became the chair of the town’s legislative council in 2013. “Make a difference.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Katzie FN delivers food and goods to members in need during COVID crisis

Band emergency operations centre group and Friends in Need food bank team up

‘An extra $220 every 90 days’: B.C. patients pay more dispensing fees due to prescription limits

Kelowna woman says it’s outrageous to charge for refills every 30 days

CITIZEN’S INK: Striving to be a hero during COVID-19 pandemic

Easier to be a hero in short spirts, but we might have to prep for more of a long-term gig

IN IT TOGETHER: Trying something new can help

In this time of stress, change helps overrides negative feelings by tricking nervous systems

Donations pour in to ensure Maple Ridge hospital staff are fed

Restaurants owners, and others, helping to ensure frontline crew at Ridge Meadows Hospital eat

‘Hold our line’: 29 new cases of COVID-19 announced in B.C.

Saturday’s number of new cases marks the lowest in weeks.

Exercises move online with YMCA’s new nationwide virtual workout program

YThrive Home offers dozens of free workout videos for people during COVID-19 self-isolation period

Two inmates found positive for COVID-19 at Mission Institution; two other tests pending

15 staff self-isolating waiting results, says correctional officer

B.C. community service provider hosts friendly art competition for youth

Theme for Pacific Community Resources contest is ‘finding the silver lining in difficult times’

Critic, workers’ group ‘disappointed’ Trudeau chose Amazon to distribute PPE

Amazon Canada said in an email to The Canadian Press that it is working with Canada Post, Purolator

Full World COVID-19 update: National Guard collect ventilators in New York; Spain, Italy improve

Comprehensive coronavirus update with news from around the world.

TransLink to reduce service on some bus routes, SeaBus, West Coast Express

Changes start April 6 ‘due to low ridership and financial pressures’ amid COVID-19

Two people fined after B.C. police spot online ads re-selling 5,000 surgical, N95 masks

Police confiscated the masks, being sold at inflated prices, and now working with Fraser Health

Most Read