“Stop Sending Us Things.” ~ A grateful but overwhelmed Newtown Board of Education member

via Dave Barger's flickr

via Dave Barger’s flickr

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.

From the Washington Post:

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.)

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About That Unique* Weblog

Adjusting to the car culture, dealing with leaving a career I love, and spouting off along the way.
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20 Responses to “Stop Sending Us Things.” ~ A grateful but overwhelmed Newtown Board of Education member

  1. After Sandy, we loaded up our minivan with donations for people on the Jersey Shore. Most of it was clothing. When we got there, we realized they didn’t really need most of it. And the places accepting donations were overwhelmed with clothing and spending most of their time going through it all. Our first instinct is to give or do what we can, but the reality is a lot of times it’s more of an inconvenience than a comfort. Thanks for pointing people in the right direction.

    • I heard similar things from the wonderful folks at Tia’s Food of Love after Sandy. It’s a wonderful impulse, but it can often lead to excess (which we are usually all very good at!) and – as you mention – inconvenience.

      Thanks for stopping in and commenting, Justin!

  2. outlawmama says:

    I’m fixated on the comments you got when you spoke up. Wtf. And this is a great reminder about how best to channel good impulses so that I might actually be helpful.

    • I’m pretty forgiving of comments like that because I’ve sometimes thought those things – but I usually don’t say or type them “out loud.” I think the idea person took it as a personal rejection – which it wasn’t, of course. Still – sometimes someone needs to be the heavy – and my big mouth puts me in that role often enough. 🙂

  3. Erica M says:

    Such a good article you’ve written, Kristin. I was thinking the same thing as Christie, and I’m glad to see your measured response. Why don’t you ever get syndicated? Your posts are 1000x better than the drivel getting passed around social media sites after national events.

  4. anna says:

    What you say is so true, but as you point out, not always what people want to hear. If I can get a little dramatic, I think the sending of stuff also reflects an American mentality that material things and money can solve things that of course can not be fixed by all the money and stuffed animals in the world. We just wish it could be that way.

    • We’re a bunch of “fixers” and perhaps we feel that handing over cash is crass? I know food pantries like cash because they can buy in bulk and get what they really need. Oh I don’t know. It’s hard because the hearts are all beating in the right place, but if it causes MORE problems for those going through hard times…then we need to reevaluate harshly and quickly.

      Thanks for stopping in, Anna!

  5. Emily says:

    Another way to help? How about looking around at the people in your own community and who might be suffering or “on the edge.” I think things like the Newtown tragedy can be a wake-up call for us to use a little more watchcare. Be our neighbor’s brother. That sort of thing.

  6. Thank you for speaking up and for the important information. I didn’t know about the fund for mental health and will contribute there – where it’s needed. Great info.

    • I think that more than teddy bears (not that I don’t like teddy bears!), the long-term effects on the police officers and medical personnel who dealt with the aftermath – not to mention the families and schoolmates – will be helped by therapy and feeling in control once more. Thanks for stopping in and for your good intentions!

  7. I can certainly understand wanting to do something and sending teddy bears or whatever seems like an easy way to help. But if it’s not what they need, and clearly we can see it isn’t, let’s do what will really help. Great info here. Shared on FB since so many people I know are still talking about what they can do to help.

    • Thank you, Michelle! That’s the thing – generosity can be so fragile, so personal. But generosity multiplied by 1000x over becomes stifling. And, as Emily pointed out, there is always need close to home as well.

      Thank you for sharing and for commenting!

  8. I will also share this, because I wondered how long before the people of Newtown (who do not appear to be lacking for the amenities in life) would find themselves overrun by things. Now, before I am called heartless (ah, go ahead, it’s ok) I totally understand friends, students, teachers, neighbors just wanting to add to the makeshift memorials as a poignant reminder that little ones were murdered. I also thought donations directly for the purpose of covering funeral expenses would be helpful and needed. And I also understand the helplessness we all felt, just wanting to do something.
    So, I suggest:
    1. Prayer. Yup, and if you don’t believe in God, then “wish healing”.
    2. If you are serious about sending relief to the town itself – inundate your media outlets with pleas to go home and stop interviewing friends of friends of cousins of barbers of uncles who might have seen the mom in a bar or the killer leaning against a wall. Make the media return to responsible reporting.
    3. Ask the local clergy first what the immediate family needs are (besides emotional healing) if money is what you think can help most. Maybe the little one taken too soon had a special interest and a memorial fund in that child’s name would live on long after we forget that horrible day. Maybe there are other siblings that will need the financial aid. We don’t know, but there are people close to the families who do. How about a huge monetary donation to the first responders who are also left scarred for life. The school itself? Anyway, you get my point – if you have it to give, put it to a meaningful use.
    4. A word about mental health. Learn about it. Understand how misunderstood, improperly diagnosed, and out and out non-treated it is for millions of people young and old. Don’t let that happen to someone you know, but educate yourself first for the signs and symptoms. Look behind that “everything is fine!” smile and see the secrets the eyes can’t hide in your own neighbor, sibling, weirdo you see at the store everyday. Learn how much people hurt but don’t tell and learn how to help them. No money, no research could do more to improve mental health than the act of compassion.

  9. Another awesome post as usual Kristin! It might also be timing related. Our town sent a bunch of coats, blankets, diapers, food, etc to the Shore right after Sandy and it was all snapped up as soon as it got there (via red cross). So many people left homeless. I wonder about the timing of the first commenter. But I hear you about Newtown. It would be helpful if there was some site that would indicate what would be of use. I’d venture to guess donations to gun control groups?

    • Timing definitely is important – in the case of Newtown, the request for snowflakes (feel good) went viral and was shared on TV and sites, but the request to NOT send more snowflakes hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention. Not as warm and fuzzy. (Which hasn’t stopped me from sharing it, of course!)

      Besides the sites listed at the end of the post, I’d say that the best way to honor those who were murdered is to work to prevent it happening again. We can’t guarantee it won’t, but we can everything possible to TRY.

  10. Campaign for gun control – plain and simple. Look at the stats US versus the rest of the world. Other countries have mental health, video games, etc etc etc. Let’s campaign our representatives, put pressure on stores to stop selling assault weapons.

    • Agreed! And not just this talk about assault weapons. All guns need more regulation, more stringent control.

      For those not directly affected by gun violence, it’s the most honorable way to pay tribute to the victims of our lax attitudes toward guns and violence.

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