Source: USA TODAY
NEWTOWN, CONN. — Twelve months after this quiet, bucolic western Connecticut town was shattered by a gunman’s bullets, it is struggling — but determined — to move forward.
Most Newtown residents know someone who was killed or survived inside the school or who is part of the family of Adam Lanza, who killed his mother, Nancy, in their home last Dec. 14 before killing 20 young children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, then taking his own life. There’s a desire among locals for Newtown to return to some sort of normalcy and again become the town known for a giant, middle-of-the-road flagpole that bottles up traffic every day and $2 movies at historic Edmond Town Hall rather than the site of horrific carnage.
“The normal of the past is gone, but the new normal is not all bad,” says Pat Llodra, the town’s top elected official. “It is different.”
Here are the words of some Newtown families and others explaining the steps they have taken since their lives were deeply affected, if not forever altered, on Dec. 14, 2012.
Alissa Parker, mother of 6-year-old Emilie Parker, who was killed at Sandy Hook
The deaths of Emilie and others shift priorities and “change everything about how you look at the world,” Alissa Parker says.
“Things that were once important are now meaningless, and other more pertinent priorities take their place,” she says. “It changes you as a person from the inside out, and you strive to become the best possible parent, spouse and person you can possibly be.”
Parker and Michele Gay, whose 7-year-old daughter, Josephine, was also killed at the school, founded Safe and Sound, a non-profit organization that aims to improve security at the nation’s schools.
The two have “worked tirelessly,” talking to school administrators and security experts and gathering information to post on the group’s website, Parker says. They have received hundreds of e-mails from parents, teachers and administrators asking what they can do and how they can make safety a priority in their schools, she says.
Parker and her husband, Robbie, also started the Emilie Parker Art Connection, a non-profit group that raises money to promote art programs in schools and communities.
Emilie wanted to open an art gallery when she grew up, and the organization “embodies who she is and how she expressed herself,” Parker says.
How has the loss of a young daughter changed her outlook on life?
“You begin to realize that if you want things to change, then you need to stop complaining, get up and do something about it,” Parker says.
Nelba Marquez-Greene, mother of 6-year-old Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, who was killed at the school
Despite the horror and the despair she has faced, Nelba Marquez-Greene has only positive things to say about Newtown and how her family has been accepted by the Sandy Hook community.
“I don’t know a place in the country safer than Sandy Hook,” says Marquez-Greene, who lives there with her husband, Jimmy Greene, and son, Isaiah. “We moved here because nothing happens here.”
The Greene family moved from Canada to Sandy Hook, a predominantly white community, four months before the shootings. It was a return to the home state of Nelba and Jimmy, who grew up in the Hartford area.
“Ana was very, very proud of her African-American and Puerto Rican heritage, and she had an amazing ability to connect with people,” Marquez-Greene says.
Though her mother suggested a book about puppies might be better, Ana insisted on bringing a children’s book about black Canadian history to school.
“She knew who she was,” Marquez-Greene says. “Ana was the kind of kid who could bring people together.”
After months of grieving, the Marquez-Greene family established the Ana Grace Project. Based on the belief that love, connection and community “are the antidotes to violence,” the non-profit organization aims to build connections for every child and family.
Nelba Marquez-Greene says bitterness and sadness are normal parts of the grieving process, but her family wants to, “most of all, be productive.”
The Ana Grace Project’s inaugural event was a conference Dec. 2 in West Hartford. The event, which featured Bruce Perry, an expert on children in crisis, aimed to bring together mental health and community officials and build connections that prevent violence and promote recovery from trauma.
Marquez-Greene says she believes the country can work together to find solutions.
“I believe common sense will come in this issue,” she says. “No one wants to see children slaughtered at a school.”
Marquez-Greene vows, “most of all, to be productive” while working to prevent violence and honoring Ana’s creativity.
“One day,” she says, “Isaiah will be an adult and say, ‘What did my parents do to honor Ana after she was killed?’”
Kaitlin Roig, Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher
Hailed as a hero after the shootings, Roig was named last month as one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year and one of 10 L’Oreal Women of Worth.
In April, Roig, who lives in Greenwich, launched Classes4Classes, a non-profit organization that aims to spread love and caring among schoolchildren.
She taught first-graders at a summer school program in Newtown last summer, was married in August and took an unpaid leave of absence in the fall. She plans to return to Sandy Hook Elementary next August.
Roig doesn’t believe the tragedy has changed her, but it doesn’t leave her mind.
“I’m the exact same person who has always wanted to help children and now has a huge weight on my heart,” she says.
The tragedy is the first thing she thinks of every morning — and the last thing every night before she goes to bed. “It will always be a part of me,” she says.
It became a part of her the morning of Dec. 14, when she heard gunshots, closed her classroom door, shut off the lights and ordered her 15 first-graders into a tiny bathroom.
Squashed together, she and the students waited there until a SWAT team knocked on the bathroom door about 45 minutes later. She says she refused to open it until she saw credentials. The team slid a badge under the door, but she says she told them the badge wasn’t sufficient proof, and they should get a key to unlock the door.
When the door was unlocked, Roig led the students out of the classroom and down the hallway past the two classrooms where many were killed.
When the class reunited in January at a temporary school in nearby Monroe, Conn., Roig says, she came up with the idea for Classes4Classes.
It aims to teach children that they are connected to other children and that they need to be compassionate and empathetic to one another.
It was “amazing” to see the smiles on the faces of the Sandy Hook children who returned to class, she says. After seeing those smiles and the world’s outpouring of support for Newtown, Roig says, she knew she “needed to give back” to school students everywhere.
Through Classes4Classes, school classes complete projects to help and show that they care about another class at the same school or elsewhere. Classes4Classes also passes on a donation to the receiving class that may be used to buy such items as iPads, smartbooks, textbooks and school supplies.
Paul and Connor Bailo, father and son
The tragedy changed the outlooks of the Bailos, who live in neighboring Trumbull and came to lay flowers at Sandy Hook Elementary after the shootings.
“I spend less time thinking of the future and more time in the present,” says Paul Bailo, a digital technology executive. “I make a greater effort to do the fun little things in life, such as play in the leaves, go to the park or just act silly for a bit.”
Bailo says he looks for the good in others and focuses “on others’ needs before my own.”
Bailo says it’s sad that the lives of Newtown residents “have been forever changed” and that most have not found a way to recover or heal.
“Newtown is in the history books — not for its glorious landscapes, wonderful schools and dedicated townspeople, but for a tragic event that will never be erased from the history books any time soon,” he says.
Yet Newtown, in many ways, is the town it once was.
“The daily rhythm of life is flowing again in Newtown,” Bailo says. “People are talking about school, taxes and youth baseball. It seems normal, but there is this feeling of loss in the faces of the people of Newtown.”
Bailo’s 13-year-old son, Connor, a high school freshman, says the shootings made him more thankful for family members and more aware of Americans’ use of weapons and gun violence.
“I love my sister and my family and wouldn’t want anything to happen to them,” he says. “So now I am more aware of how important they are to me and appreciate them much more.”
Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra
Llodra, a small-town official who was thrown into the national spotlight after Dec. 14, says the shootings made her a different person in public.
“I am less reluctant to show the world my emotional side,” she says. “I find myself eager to share the call for compassion and kindness. I recognize more clearly the fragility of life and want always to make sure that I am true and kind and loving to those around me.”
Llodra says she has always been a “glass half-full sort of thinker” but acknowledges “that each of us has a short time on this Earth” and “should not squander opportunities to create a meaningful and positive legacy.”
The shootings, she says, did not change her political views or career path.
“I am just more outspoken in calling for leadership at all levels to be the right combination of the heart and the head,” Llodra says. “I am less tolerant of ideologues — especially those who advance rhetoric devoid of understanding of impact on the lives of common man.”
Llodra’s leadership throughout the aftermath of the shootings was widely praised by locals. She was elected to her third team as first selectman in November after rebuffing overtures by Republican Party officials to run for state or national office.
“I have never had any political aspirations,” she says. “I only want to serve Newtown for some of my time and then quietly retire.”
Llodra says it is too soon to determine “if, or how, the town has changed in any permanent way” because of the shootings.
“Newtown has a 300-year history,” she says. “The community has had many wonderful happenings along with tragedies.”
Newtown is “still a town that is centered more than anything on families, schools, quality of life, safety, active and passive recreation,” Llodra says. “Our core values are intact and, if anything, have been reinforced and strengthened.”
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