POLITICS
12/06/2013 07:41 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Newtown Pleads For Privacy As Sandy Hook Anniversary Looms

WASHINGTON -- As the one-year anniversary approaches for the murders of 26 students and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., many groups representing victims' families are planning no special events.

And one group that will publicly mark the occasion won't be doing it in Newtown. Instead, the non-profit Newtown Action Alliance will hold a two-day program of community service in Washington, culminating in a National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence on Thursday afternoon at the Washington National Cathedral.

"Hopefully these events will help us deflect some of the attention away from our town," said Newtown resident Dave Ackert, an organizer of the anniversary event. "We'll be coming to D.C. with two buses from Newtown, and we'll be meeting up with people from all over the country whose lives have been affected by gun violence," including parents and survivors of mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., Tucson, Ariz., and Virginia Tech, he said.

The Newtown Action Alliance trip is part of an effort by Newtown nonprofit groups, residents and town leaders to deflect attention from the New England town, where a lone gunman committed one of the worst school shootings in American history on Dec. 14, 2012. Many of the families of Sandy Hook victims plan to leave town for the week to avoid the media, said a Sandy Hook resident who requested anonymity in order to discuss sensitive plans.

Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra, the equivalent of mayor, pleaded with the world in October to leave her town alone for the anniversary. "We are wishing fervently that those many persons who wish us well, and the media, will allow us this time to be alone and quiet," she wrote on her blog.

Llodra explained that residents had chosen, "to remember and honor those who lost their lives in that awful tragedy in ways that are quiet, personal, and respectful." Her statement was endorsed by the interim schools superintendent, a member of the clergy and a mental health professional.

A spokesman for Sandy Hook Promise -- the most visible of the Newtown memorial groups -- did not respond this week to calls and messages from The Huffington Post, perhaps reflecting how seriously some groups are taking the appeal for privacy.

"Clearly, there are mixed feelings about press attention in Newtown, and they certainly have a right to want privacy," said Linda Rosenberg, CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health. "But there may also be some people who would feel that if there weren't any media attention, then the nation wasn't fully appreciating the enormity of the tragedy here."

One of those people is Sam Mihailoff, a music teacher and a 34-year resident of Newtown. "There are people in town who don't want outsiders here, who call them gawkers," Mihailoff told HuffPost "They hate that a news truck is parked downtown. But I say the [the media] have got a job to do. There are people all over the world who hurt for this horrible tragedy."

Another factor complicates Newtown's desire for privacy. Since last December, scores of nonprofits have been launched in the name of Sandy Hook's victims and survivors. According to the Newtown Charities Coordinating Committee, there are more than 20 personalized memorial funds dedicated to individual victims. In addition, a half-dozen family and survivors' aid funds have been created, along with a slate of commemorative building efforts and a number of political action groups, intent on changing gun safety and mental health laws.

Like any nonprofit, these groups rely on public awareness to raise funds to operate. And even a year later, the community's needs remain great.

"There are a lot of therapy dogs in town now, who weren't here a year ago, and a lot of kids who still don't sleep through the night," said Ackert. "This is a long-term recovery, and it's going to take a long time." In the meantime, he said, residents of Newtown treat one another more kindly than they did before Sandy Hook. "There's a lot more holding doors for people and buying Girl Scout cookies," he said.

A few of the individual memorial funds have raised enough funding to begin new programs. Created in memory of 6-year old Ana Marquez Greene, the Ana Grace Project hosted an inaugural event in Hartford earlier this month, a day-long conference "to promote mental health and community well-being." The event was sponsored by Connecticut-based tools company Stanley Black & Decker, and was off limits to reporters.

Mental health professional Bryan Gibb was one of the invited speakers. Gibb, director of public education at the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, said a number of teachers from Sandy Hook-area schools attended the conference. Gibb said he talked about "the importance of spotting early signs of mental illness and intervening before it's too late." The conference was practical and informative, he said, "but it was also a little bit musical and a little bit spiritual. A real celebration of this child's life."

As Newtown faces long-term mental community health needs, some nonprofits are positioning themselves to meet the demand. The Newtown Memorial Fund was created for the immediate needs of victims' families, but recently shifted its mission to providing supplemental funds for mental health counseling.

Thus far, the group has raised $1.6 million "to provide for the immediate and ongoing needs of those affected [by Sandy Hook], to construct a physical memorial honoring the lives lost … and to establish academic scholarships … for future generations of Newtown students," said Amy Bailey, a spokeswoman.

A similar shift took place at one of the largest Newtown assistance funds, the Sandy Hook School Support Fund. Initially administered by the United Way, the fund was transferred to a locally based board early this year. In August, it distributed more than $7.5 million in donations to the 40 families most affected by Sandy Hook. On Nov. 5, the group announced it would use the remaining funds -- nearly $5 million -- for broader community needs and appointed a new board to determine what those needs are.

Similar to the disbursement of funds after the 9/11 and Virginia Tech tragedies, the process of allocating the millions of dollars of Sandy Hook donations wasn't always smooth. Some families complained that the slow-moving application process for funds meant money wasn't available when it was needed most -- soon after the shooting, when many family members were too distraught to return to work.

"I sat on my couch and cried for six weeks," said Ackert, whose 7-year-old son did not attend Sandy Hook Elementary School, but was close friends with students there.

It wasn't until Ackert traveled to Washington for a rally on gun safety in late January that he finally felt a sense of purpose. Now, he said, "we come to Washington every three months, and each time we bring people from other parts of the country who've lost loved ones to gun violence."

The April failure of a Senate bill to expand background checks for gun buyers was a blow to many of the Newtown residents who took up the cause of gun safety after the massacre. Despite the legislative setback, Ackert said members of the Newtown Action Alliance have continued to lobby Congress for more stringent gun laws. In their meetings with lawmakers, he said, "we try to understand what their resistance is to universal background checks and stricter gun safety laws."

According to police, Newtown shooter Adam Lanza fired more than 150 rounds in less than five minutes.

The upcoming anniversary of Lanza's crime has put the lobbying efforts on hold, Ackert said. "When we came back after our September trip, our town decided they wanted people to honor the lives lost at Sandy Hook by performing acts of kindness in their own communities," he said. "I mean, we've all been so moved by the support, but please don't send any more teddy bears."

Ackert said the Newtown Action Alliance didn't want to politicize the first anniversary of the shooting, "and we don't want to advocate" during this sensitive time. Instead, "we're going to be working with domestic violence centers and after school programs in D.C., painting and doing yard work, and anything else they need."

The group, which Ackert expects will exceed 100 people, will fan out "to eight or nine different places in Washington that need our help." They're currently raising money online to help pay for more gun violence victims to join the group in D.C.

Unlike the Newtown Action Alliance, the Newtown Memorial Fund "will not be formally commemorating the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, as requested by the victims families, survivor witnesses and town officials," wrote Amy Bailey, the spokeswoman. Nonetheless, the memorial fund's founder and chairman Brian Mauriello stressed to HuffPost that his group has a lot of work still ahead of them. "We cannot rest -- knowing how great and widespread legitimate needs for support are right now in the community."

Clarification: Ackert's son is friends with a number of Sandy Hook Elementary School students, but he was not close with the four children from their neighborhood who were killed.

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