12/17/2014 10:47 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

Sandy Hook Charities Find Generosity Of Strangers No Relief From Tough Choices

WASHINGTON -- The outpouring began within hours of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School two years ago, which killed 20 first-graders and six adults. There would be hundreds of thousands of condolence letters, approximately 65,000 teddy bears, and tens of millions of dollars in donations.

The money flowed to at least 77 organizations created in the wake of the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting, both to memorialize the victims and to assist the Sandy Hook community in its recovery.

But the large number of groups and the volume of donations presented formidable challenges to the traumatized residents of Newtown, Connecticut. Some of the groups were small, focused on individual families of those killed. Others were subsidiaries of large, national organizations that encircled the entire community in relief efforts. They had names that may have sounded alike to donors -- Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, My Sandy Hook Family Fund, the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, the Sandy Hook School Foundation. But they have been distributing the millions that flowed from brokenhearted Americans in vastly different ways, creating tension in this white picket fence corner of Connecticut that some advocates say has deepened the wound.

The crux of the debate concerned whether to direct the aid to Sandy Hook victims' families, or to include community needs.

The Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, created by the United Way of Western Connecticut and the Newtown Savings Bank, took in the largest number of donations after the tragedy.

"The perception of the United Way fund in particular was that they were going to give the money to the families,” said Caryn Kaufman, a Bridgeport, Connecticut-based public relations consultant who volunteered services for the My Sandy Hook Family Fund. Instead, she said, “the tiny, tiny print gave [the foundation] the latitude to be able to decide how much to give to the families.” She called the United Way's financial distributions "a messy, public process that re-victimized families who had already lost so much."

Newtown First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra said at a meeting in September that many millions of dollars came to the town through the generosity of donors. But “the distribution decisions for those funds has been problematic, has created significant conflict, which I believe endures and may in fact be a permanent fracture among some in our community,” she said.

Llodra told The Huffington Post that when funds came into major charities, “there was no established process to get those funds to the families of the victims and that caused confusion.” She added, “We need to be sure there is a process that is established, that is transparent, that is effective, and that is timely.”

Of about $12 million that has been collected by the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, $7.7 million was distributed to 26 families who lost loved ones, as well as injured teachers and families of surviving children. As of Nov. 31, about $222,100 of the remaining funds had been spent on mental health treatment and community programs.

Jennifer Barahona, a social worker who is the executive director of the foundation, said some of the money has gone to out-of-pocket mental health costs, which run from $8,000 to $22,000 a week, for people affected by the shooting, including teachers at the school and first responders.

The foundation also spent money on services aimed at the broader community, including a $16,500 grant to the Tapping Solutions Foundation, a group whose members aim to heal everything from “ limiting financial beliefs” to “body image and food cravings” by having people tap their fingers on specific body points to access the “body’s energy.” Another $15,900 went to the Wheeler Clinic to conduct youth mental health first aid trainings for all teachers in Newtown Public Schools.

“Our plan is to be here for the next 10 years to help the community get its footing,” said Barahona. “It’s a continual assessment of what the unmet needs are in the community.”

Barahona acknowledged the dissatisfaction felt by some.

“We are trying very hard to help people understand that there are multiple impacted groups and a tremendous amount of suffering,” Barahona told The Huffington Post. “It's one of those situations where no matter what decision you make, you will have someone who doesn't like it, or who is angry with it, or who is unhappy. That’s just the nature of the business.”

The Rev. Matt Crebbin, senior minister of the Newtown Congregational Church, said he understood the dilemma facing fund administrators. "The reality is that there's just no way to deal with individual families in a way that honors their unique struggles and challenges, and at the same time recognizes it in the context of everything else," he said. "Those are awful conundrums."

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen found last year that while "reasonable minds may differ as to how the money should be allocated," the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation’s decision to give some of the money to the victims, and use some for the long-term needs of the community, was "reasonable and compliant" with the donors' intent.

Kaufman, the public relations consultant, said for a community to claim it suffered in the same ways as victims’ families is questionable. “You did, but not in the way the families who lost a loved one in such a violent way,” said Kaufman, who noted she doesn't speak for the Newtown families and represents a coalition of victims from other mass shootings. “Unless you've walked that path, unless you've walked in those shoes, you have no idea the pain and the horror of that experience.”

Sometimes, the needs of victims, their families, and the community overlap. Many of the 26 Sandy Hook families set up nonprofits in honor of their lost children. The family of 6-year-old Ana Grace Marquez-Greene helped create a half-dozen memorials to their daughter. One, the Ana Grace Project, "promotes love, community and connection for all children and families through partnerships with schools, mental health providers, community organizations and faith leaders." The parents of Benjamin Wheeler, also a first-grader killed at Sandy Hook, created Ben's Lighthouse, which "fosters all children’s potential to build a more compassionate and connected world."

Other donors have helped build another nonprofit, the Sandy Hook School Foundation, into a thriving enterprise dedicated to helping students of the Sandy Hook School. The foundation funds grant requests for "programs, resources and enrichment that aim to make a long term difference in the lives of Sandy Hook School students." So far, the foundation has collected more than $1 million in donations, and has spent around $90,000. Funded programs include professional development for teachers, and a Scrabble club, a jump rope club, and a Lego club for students.

Other charitable groups have missions that extend well beyond the borders of Newtown, with some aiming to create change at the national level. The Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, which took in more than $3 million in its first year, has a mission to "protect children from gun violence" nationwide, and to "help our community through this tragedy."

The two most visible faces of the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation are Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden, both of them parents who lost children at Sandy Hook. Hockley recently penned a letter to "the Mom I used to be," urging her younger self to get involved in gun violence prevention. "For some people that means fighting for policy and political change," Hockley wrote. "That can be a long, frustrating road, and certainly not the only option. Small but meaningful actions create change … But to do nothing? That doesn’t honor the dead and doesn’t protect the living."

For Sandy Hook families, the question of whether to use the platform afforded them by the national media to advocate for gun-control measures like universal background checks for firearms purchases has been divisive. For those parents who advocated for tighter gun control, the failure of background check legislation in the U.S. Senate in April 2013 was devastating.

But even as some parents spoke out about the need for tighter restrictions on gun purchases, others, like Mark Mattioli, whose son James Mattioli died in the school shooting, believe stricter gun laws would do nothing to prevent future massacres.

"Gun control works for people who abide by the laws,” Mattioli told Fox News in an interview. “Criminals who conduct most of the gun crime don’t care about the law."

A National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence on Dec. 11 in Washington at the National Cathedral was billed by some groups as a major Sandy Hook anniversary event, but was attended by the parents of just one victim of the massacre. Once the service got underway, it was easy to see why some of the families may have chosen to avoid Washington. The event was sprinkled with outspoken calls for stricter federal and state gun control laws. The cathedral's top clergyman, the Right Rev. Gary Hall, used his sermon to portray an epic battle between "the gun lobby" and "the cross lobby."

Crebbin, the minister from Newtown, attended the National Cathedral event, part of a group that traveled from Newtown with yet another Sandy Hook nonprofit group, the Newtown Action Alliance. Crebbin said he has worked with a number of charities in the past two years.

"We're all friends and neighbors, so there's a lot of collaboration, but each organization has unique gifts and focuses on certain areas," Crebbin said. "I think we should encourage that, and not see it as a competition."

Crebbin said he tried hard not to measure "grief against other grief," but instead "to help people find what is going to help them heal." Newtown, he said, is still a broken community. "But I believe that from these cracks, light shines in and out."



Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting