August 31, 2013

With parade, Newtown reflects 'how we're healing'


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This Aug. 14, 2013, photo shows seven members of the Labor Day Parade Committee in Newtown, Conn. Seated from left are Tom D'Agostino, Robin Buchanan, Beth Caldwell and Dan Cruson. Standing from left are Brian Amey, Ellie Whalen and Stacey Olszewski. Caldwell, the head of the committee, believes they had found the right balance between respectful remembrance of the December shooting and celebration at the annual end-of-the-summer event that comes nearly nine months after shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School left 26 dead, 20 of them children.


The 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Company A, the Civil War group, will march again – but with black armbands and with rifles pointed downward, a gesture of mourning, noted Cruson, whose son, Benjamin, is part of the unit. "They had decided independently that they shouldn't be firing," he said.

And as the months passed, even those closest to the tragedy began to think about joining the parade.

Sandy Hook Elementary School – though temporarily moved to a nearby town, its old building awaiting demolition and reconstruction – will be there. Its float will have a large globe and thank-you signs – for support sent from around the world. "It's baby steps back to whatever kind of normalcy we can get to," said PTA president Stephanie Burns. "And for the kids, it'll be ... a parade."

St. Rose Church will march, with a symbolic Tree of Life on its float. Trinity Episcopal Church's entry will feature "Ben's Lighthouse," the charity named for Ben Wheeler, one of the first-graders, and a favorite thing of his. Other groups honoring individual victims will take part.

In July, the Avielle Foundation, named for 6-year-old Avielle Richman, said yes.

"Robin Buchanan sent me a message on Facebook and said, 'Would you consider this?'" said Avielle's mother, Jennifer Hensel.

"It just felt right immediately," she said, then paused. "Grief has its own process," she went on. "And each family will have to do what's best for them."

She and her husband, Jeremy Richman, both scientists, will walk the long parade route behind a banner for the foundation, which supports research into the brain pathologies behind violence. It also promotes community outreach, so that isolated, vulnerable individuals, like the Sandy Hook shooter, are not ignored.

"I feel that a way for us to heal is to pull into the community," Hensel said.

So they'll march, thinking of their daughter, her husband said. "Avielle loved parades."


In August, the planners met twice more, tying up dozens of loose ends. Even the weather: "Put in a good word," Caldwell implored the clergy who agreed to judge the parade.

Looking back, she thought the committee had found the right balance between respectful remembrance and celebration.

"There's going to be a lot of bittersweet moments," she acknowledged.

She was thinking of the memorial floats. "It's coming face-to-face with these things that allows us to move forward," she said. "But how can you not smile when those crazy Shriner cars come down the road? I'm sure there'll be tears, and I'm sure there'll be a lot of smiles."

Buchanan, looking back, recalled the worried question, "Are you going to have a parade, this year?"

Now, the answer was clear. Her lineup finally set – and, this year, bigger than ever before – she visualized the scene at the ambulance garage where participants crowd in on Labor Day morning, just before the start. Beauty queens and flag-bearers, clowns and Cub Scouts, buglers, jugglers and barking dogs. And Main Street lined to see Newtown marching again.

She took a breath.

"I think we're going to be OK."

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