The anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre arrived Saturday with the nation torn over how to commemorate the day —- if at all.
Newtown itself, exhausted and traumatized, has asked for peace and quiet: no media, no inrush of sympathetic gestures or remembrances. Local officials and families of victims say they’d rather people do something kind or volunteer for a charitable cause in their own home towns as a way of recognizing the one-year mark.
Many of them have arranged to be out of town for the weekend, while others will quietly light memorial candles in honor of their lost loved ones.
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Neil Heslin, father of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, said he planned to travel to New York on the anniversary to take part in a project honoring the victims, but also to avoid any spectacle that may encroach on the town. "I need to get out of Dodge," he said.
The proudly modest community, sprawled across the wooded hills of southwestern Connecticut, wants to move forward, so that the shooting doesn’t define it.
"Newtown's ask of the world for the anniversary is to stay where you are and do acts of kindness and honor those we’ve lost," said David Ackert, chairman of the Newtown Foundation and Newtown Action Alliance, which organized a vigil for gun violence victims in Washington D.C. on Thursday, in part to draw attention away from the town.
Sandy Hook Elementary School has been demolished, and the town has begun design of a new school that would leave no reminder of the shooting. Many of the families have turned their grief into political action, lobbying for stricter gun laws and better mental health care — an endeavor that has yet to reap much success. Many have also formed organizations that promote causes that their loved ones identified with.
At the same time, many Americans, and their elected leaders, feel a need to express their condolences, in a way that respects Newtown’s wishes.
At 9:30 a.m., around the time the first of Adam Lanza’s 26 schoolhouse victims died, houses of worship around Connecticut tolled their bells, once for each victim, a request from Gov. Dannel Malloy — repeating a similar gesture made a week after the shooting. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama observed a moment of silence Saturday morning and lit 26 candles set up on a table in the White House Map Room.
Across the country, people will find their own ways to pay tribute — the personal and the communal, the modest and the grand.
Many of such efforts have been underway for quite a while. There is, for example, The Sandy Ground Project: Where Angels Play, which built 26 playgrounds in areas leveled by Hurricane Sandy, each named after one of the Sandy Hook victims. There is the Newtown Documentation Project, which sought to preserve the thousands of letter and handmade gifts that have poured into the town in the past year.
But the most profound undertakings may be those in which people use the anniversary to rededicate themselves to helping others.
That is what Carlos Soto, the 16-year-old younger brother of slain Sandy Hook Elementary teacher Victoria Soto, is planning.
“I want to help people. That’s actually what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he said a few days before the anniversary. "I want to counsel people and families of gun violence.”
That, he said, is the best way he can think to honor the events of Dec. 14, 2012.