NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — Newtown’s children were showered with gifts Saturday — tens of thousands of teddy bears, Barbie dolls, soccer balls and board games — and those are only some of the tokens of support from around the world for the town in mourning.
Just a little over a week ago, 20 children and six school employees were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, attacked the school, then killed himself. Police don’t know what set off the massacre.
Days before Christmas, funerals were still being held Saturday, the last of those whose schedules were made public, according to the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association. A service was held in Utah for 6-year-old Emilie Parker. Others were held in Connecticut for Josephine Gay, 7, and Ana Marquez-Greene, 6.
All of Newtown’s children were invited to Edmond Town Hall, where they could choose a toy. Bobbi Veach, who was fielding donations at the building, reflected on the outpouring of gifts from toy stores, organizations and individuals around the world.
“It’s their way of grieving,” Veach said. “They say, ‘I feel so bad, I just want to do something to reach out.’ That’s why we accommodate everybody we can.”
The United Way of Western Connecticut said the official fund for donations had $2.8 million in it on Saturday. Others sent envelopes stuffed with cash to pay for coffee at the general store, and a shipment of cupcakes arrived from a gourmet bakery in Beverly Hills, Calif.
The Postal Service reported a six-fold increase in mail in the town and set up a unique post office box to handle it. The parcels come decorated with rainbows and hearts drawn by schoolchildren.
Some letters arrived in packs of 26 identical envelopes — one for each family of the children and staff killed or addressed to the “First Responders” or just “The People of Newtown.” One card arrived from Georgia addressed to “The families of 6 amazing women and 20 beloved angels.” Many contained checks.
“This is just the proof of the love that’s in this country,” Postmaster Cathy Zieff said.
Peter Leone said he was busy making deli sandwiches and working the register at his Newtown General Store when he got a phone call from Alaska. It was a woman who wanted to give him her credit card number.
“She said, ‘I’m paying for the next $500 of food that goes out your door,'” Leone said. “About a half hour later another gentleman called, I think from the West Coast, and he did the same thing for $2,000.”
At the town hall building, the basement resembled a toy store, with piles of stuffed penguins, dolls, games, and other fun gifts. All the toys were inspected and examined by bomb-sniffing dogs before being sorted and put on card tables. The children could choose whatever they wanted.
Jugglers entertained the children, a dunk tank was set up outside and the crowd of several hundred parents and children sang an enthusiastic rendition of “Happy Birthday” to one child. A man dressed as Santa Claus was in attendance, and high school students were offering arts and crafts such as face painting and caricatures.
Newtown resident Amy Mangold, director of the local Parks and Recreation department, attended with her 12-year-old daughter, Cory. She acknowledged that most people here could afford to buy their own gifts but said “this means people really care about what’s happening here. They know we need comfort and want to heal.”
She pointed to two people across the room. “Look at that hug, that embrace. This is bringing people together. Some people haven’t been getting out since this happened. It’s about people being together. I see people coming together and healing.”
Many people have placed flowers, candles and stuffed animals at makeshift memorials that have popped up all over town. Others are stopping by the Edmond Town Hall to drop off food, toys or cash. About 60,000 teddy bears were donated, said Ann Benoure, a social services caseworker who was working at the town hall.
“There’s so much stuff coming in,” said Tom Mahoney, the building administrator who’s in charge of handling gifts. “To be honest, it’s a bit overwhelming; you just want to close the doors and turn the phone off.”
Mahoney said the town of some 27,000 with a median household income of more than $111,000 plans to donate whatever is left over to shelters or other charities.
Sean Gillespie of Colchester, who attended Sandy Hook Elementary, and Lauren Minor, who works at U.S. Foodservice in Norwich, came from Calvary Chapel in Uncasville with a car filled with food donated by U.S. Foodservice. But they were sent elsewhere because the refrigerators in Newtown were overflowing with donations.
“We’ll find someplace,” Gillespie said. “It won’t go to waste.”
In addition to the town’s official fund, other private funds have been set up. Former Sandy Hook student Ryan Kraft, who once baby-sat Lanza, set up a fund with other alumni that has collected almost $150,000. It is earmarked for the Sandy Hook PTA.
Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel is raising money for a memorial to the victims. He said one man wrote a check for $52,000 for the project.
Several colleges, including the University of Connecticut, have set up scholarship funds to pay for the educations of students at Sandy Hook and the relatives of the victims.
Town officials have not decided yet what to do with all the money. A board of Newtown community leaders is being established to determine how it is most needed and will be best utilized, said Isabel Almeida with the local United Way, which has waived all its administrative fees related to the fund.
She said some have wondered about building a new school for Sandy Hook students if the town decides to tear the school down, but that decision has not been made.
And while the town is grateful for all the support, Almeida said, it has no more room for those gifts. Instead, she encouraged people to donate to others in memory of the Sandy Hook victims.
“Send those teddy bears to a school in your community or an organization that serves low-income children, who are in need this holiday season, and do it in memory of our children,” she said.