NEWTOWN, Conn. — The world has been grieving along with Newtown and the physical manifestation of that grief — a tide of teddy bears and toys, letters and cards, checks and cash, even hams and turkeys — has been delivered by mail and by hand since just after the Dec. 14 shootings.
A need arose quickly for someone to manage the donations, still coming daily via U-Hauls, vans, school buses, box trucks and 18-wheelers. Deliveries have come from Chicago, Texas, Arkansas, Nebraska and by mail from across the country and beyond, Chris Kelsey, the town assessor, and other town officials said.
“A couple of weeks ago, I was the assessor,” Kelsey said.
Since then, he’s had a new job — organizing gifts in a warehouse that looks to be the size of a grocery store. The warehouse on Simm Lane is starting to resemble the closing scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” with brown boxes stacked high to create aisles.
After the school massacre in which 20 children and six women were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Kelsey said, he has put in 60- to 80-hour work weeks coordinating volunteers who sort through the donations.
Some mementos are delicate — paper snowflakes the size of dinner plates. Mounds of orange, blue and purple stuffed-animals — tens of thousands of them — are heaped in overflowing boxes near school supplies and other donations.
“It never stopped,” Kelsey said of the days leading up to Christmas. “We worked all through the weekend.”
The warehouse was closed on Dec. 25, but on Wednesday, he and at least 20 town workers and volunteers were organizing toys and supplies into boxes, by category. On Wednesday afternoon, a box truck unloaded while a school bus waited nearby to do the same.
On Thursday, about 50 volunteers sorted puzzles, Barbies, Disney Cinderella dolls, lacrosse sticks, footballs, fleece blankets, Tonka trucks, Battleship board games, clothing and food.
“We had a frozen lasagna delivered from Texas Steakhouse,” said Lauren Trahan of Plainfield, who is a volunteer coordinator with the Adventist Community Services Disaster Response.
The lasagna and other food have been distributed to some families, and the rest is taken to a refrigerated storage unit.
The same outpouring of letters followed terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We were told by the Post Office that 9/11 peaked in two weeks,” Kelsey said. “I have a feeling, because of the holiday, we haven’t hit the peak.”
First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra said Newtown is trying to honor the wishes of those who donated gifts by taking an inventory, and “our intention ultimately is to donate” the gifts in honor of Sandy Hook Elementary.
“The state and the country and the world has been generous,” Llodra told The Hartford Courant.
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At the Simm Lane warehouse, a couple from the Syracuse, N.Y., area had just driven to donate school supplies. Husband and wife Molly McGarry and Eilert Bonk arrived at the loading dock shortly after noon Thursday with their son Ben, 16, and relatives from New Hampshire.
McGarry, who said she is a teacher at East Syracuse Elementary, started crying just thinking about the shootings.
“My school was very touched by everything that’s happening. … My community will do anything to help,” she said.
Bonk added, “Everybody’s heart is broken.”
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While delivered items are being directed to Simm Lane, mail is going to a different location — a nondescript warehouse on Trades Lane.
The U.S. Postal Service receives 10 or 12 metal carts full of mail for Newtown every day, each the size of a double-door refrigerator, stuffed with envelopes and boxes.
Some letters are addressed to the victims, or their families. In one corner of the warehouse are rows of green recycling bins, labeled with the names of each victim, and filled with envelopes and boxes. The mail sits there for later distribution to the families. It’s still not clear if, or when, they might want the deluge of attention and affection.
The space — about 8,000 to 10,000 square feet — is filling up.
“People drove out here from Oklahoma on Christmas Eve to see that their package arrived,” said Dennis Stratford, who works in maintenance for the school district.
For safety, the mail and donations are checked by state police and a bomb-sniffing dog.
“Everything we had here had to be sniffed by the dogs,” he said.
At first, the warehouses were guarded by state police and other law enforcement. A security guard patrolled the Trades Lane warehouse Wednesday, and a Newtown police officer arrived in the afternoon.
Stratford was one of two people inside the building sorting mail on Wednesday. Some of the mail was addressed simply to the town, or to the school. Envelopes had cash — including one with a $100 bill — and others contained checks, he said. For that reason, the rest of the mail is being sorted and not opened, he said.
It’s anything you can imagine, Stratford said.
“There was tractor-trailers of teddy bears alone,” he said. “There’s homemade Tiffany lamps, a lot of food.”
In back of the warehouse is a refrigerated container filled with food, which Kelsey said he is discouraging as a form of donation. Alternatively, people can buy gift cards for local businesses in Newtown as a way to offer food to the volunteers. Those gift cards should be mailed to Chris Kelsey, Town Assessor, 3 Primrose St., Newtown, CT 06470.
If people want to give, Kelsey also recommends the United Way fund. Donations can be mailed to Sandy Hook School Support Fund, c/o Newtown Savings Bank, 39 Main St., Newtown, CT 06470 or to the Newtown Memorial Fund, operated through the United Way of Western Connecticut, at http://newtown.uwwesternct.org.
©2012 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CONN-SCHOOLSHOOTING-WAREHOUSE