I get it. Those of us with empathy and sadness and a desire to help, give things. We write checks to the Red Cross, we send care packages, we sign petitions, we write our representatives, and we cut out snowflakes. (Update: Please see this NewtownBee piece about Too Many Snowflakes.) And there are a lot of us.
I really do get it. A week or so after 9/11 I dropped in at the fire house closest to the Elizabeth Street apartment I was crashing in to drop off sweat socks. My host and I had heard that the fire fighters needed socks – so we bought about eight dozen and gave them to a mournful and exhausted, but very kind fire fighter. He thanked us, and during our chat, he told us that they had received hundreds, maybe thousands of socks thanks to the morning show that had mentioned it. Doggie booties, too. There had been a feature on the dogs searching for survivors, and it focused on how their tender feet needed to be covered for walking on the rubble. People from all over the USA sent doggie booties. The fire fighter told us that most of the donations were being stored until they could be donated. “It’s appreciated,” he said. “Because it shows that people care. But we don’t need so many.” For some reason, I don’t remember why we were so slow on the pick-up, we didn’t take the socks back to drop them off at the shelter just five minutes away. We left them for the firehouse to deal with. Nice.
That experience hasn’t stopped me from wanted to help during crises, but it has made me think more critically about how I help. One of the groups I’m involved in wanted to send stuffed animals and paper snowflakes to Newtown after the horrible tragedy there. It was a well-meaning suggestion, but I took a deep breath and said I didn’t think it was a good idea due to many other people having the same idea – multiplied by national attention to result in even more people. My comment was not well-received. I was “heartless” and “didn’t know children” and I should “just stay out of it.” Okay then. Definitely not the first time my opinions have not been popular. I’m sure it won’t be the last time.
When I read this article in the Washington Post, I felt a little better about speaking up. All the material donations are appreciated, and – as the fire fighter said – it shows that people care and are affected – but it’s too much stuff.
Coping with generosity, however, has become a full-time job for volunteers in Newtown. At the warehouse, which is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., boxes the size of a hot tub are labeled with the names of families of the victims (“Hubbard,” “Hsu,” “Hochsprung”). Pallets of toys are wheeled into a room where residents box and label them (“6 medium teddy bears” and “484,” the inventory code for stuffed animals). The boxes are then stacked in the back of the warehouse until the town can decide what to do with them; most will likely be re-donated to needier parts of the country.
Everyone should “stop sending us things,” Bill Hart, a grateful but overwhelmed town Board of Education member, told the News-Times newspaper this week.
In this NewsTimes.com article, the photos show truly moving memorials, but they also show a logistical nightmare for the town when it comes to cleaning up and disposing of the teddy bears, now covered in snow and dirt.
And I truly do get the urge to DO something. Anything. So what are practical ways to help Newtown specifically?
There is a fund to create a permanent memorial to the victims in Newtown.
Fairfield County has information on specific funds to support mental health for Newtown and Fairfield County residents and first responders, as well as in general.
UCONN has established a fund to assist with college costs for the siblings of the children murdered at Sandy Hook.
There are more, and if you want to volunteer your time in Newtown, first call 800-203-1234 instead of just showing up. (via the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.)