A Celebration of Kindness in Newtown

In the wake of tragedy, Newtown was graced with unprecedented kindness from around the world. That, in turn, inspired an entire movement.

Credit: Davis Dunavin
Credit: Davis Dunavin

'A Celebration of Kindness' examines just a few of the countless Newtowners who have embraced kindness as a philosophy this year. Scroll down and click to read more about acts of kindness in the community:

26 Days, Countless Acts of Kindness

The call went out on Nov. 10.

That’s when Southbury babysitter and Sandy Hook native Ashley Bochino Petersen created an event on Facebook called 26 Days of Kindness. Every day, for 26 days, she asked participants to dedicate an act of kindness to one of the victims of 12/14, and to share their experience on the page.

"I just thought it would be nice that each victim would have their own day to be honored," said Ashley on Friday, the second-to-last day of the campaign -- a day devoted to student Caroline Previdi.

"Today is day 25 of 26 Days of Kindness and today we honor Caroline Previdi. Nicknamed ‘Boo,’ due to her resemblance of the character in ‘Monsters, Inc.,’ Caroline loved gymnastics, drawing and dancing. What was your act of kindness today?"

Each morning, she kicked off her calls with a similar message. And the responses that rolled in surpassed anything she could have hoped for.

2,900 people from Newtown and across the world signed up to take part. Every day, dozens posted their stories, ranging from helping an elderly neighbor shovel snow to buying coffee and meals for strangers at the grocery store. Some donated to the less fortunate. Some spent time reading to kids.

All this from an invite Ashley shared with her friends. She didn’t seek publicity or contact the media. She didn’t try to make her posts "go viral."

"I didn’t think anyone would participate!" she says. "It just seems like everyone invited their friends and those people invited their friends … and it went from there!"

Ashley’s act of kindness? She’s had many, but she remembers going to Dunkin’ Donuts / Big Y in Newtown to hand out ribbons on Sunday, Nov. 23, the halfway point of the campaign.

"People were coming up to me and thanking me," she said. "They say it opens their eyes more to be aware of others in need, and to be nicer on a daily basis overall."

She’ll be doing one extra day of kindness on Dec. 15 to honor everyone else — survivors, teachers, first responders, friends and family. And she won’t be stopping after that, either. She plans another 26 days of kindness next year, and the year after that.

"People have said 26 days isn’t enough -- but I’m not saying only do 26!" she says. "Of course, everyone should be nice every day. It’s been a long 26 days, but it’s been nice to read everyone’s acts of kindness, and I hope everyone continues."

And maybe, for some, that’s okay.

"I've decided not to stop after December 14," one comment read. "It feels too good to stop."

The event may be ending, but Ashley will continue providing a space to share stories through the new 26 Days of Kindness Facebook Page, which already has more than 800 followers.

Of course, Ashley isn’t alone. The town of Newtown has embraced a message of kindness handed down from person to person, perhaps never more powerfully than in the words of Principal Dawn Hochsprung: "Be nice to each other. It’s all that really matters."

Kindness As A Motto

Newtown has certainly, in the words of First Selectman Pat Llodra, been "overwhelmed with great generosities."

"Gifts were coming in by the truckload," she said. "As much as we appreciate that, we began to understand that [they were] associating this horrible thing with a gift. That’s not the association most of us are comfortable with. Parents were saying we don’t want that awful tragedy to be the leverage point for wonderful things happening to our kids."

In October, many of the gifts and memorials sent to Newtown became “sacred soil,” possibly to be included in a future 12/14 memorial. A town memorial committee will make that decision at some point in the future.

But Newtown has also given back. And they’ve been giving back since before anyone may have expected.

In the third week of December, just before Christmas, a group of families who had lost children on Dec. 14 decided to come together and bake cookies for first responders — police, fire and emergency personnel — in other neighboring towns.

"To me, that’s so telling about the power of community spirit," Llodra said. "In the midst of their despair, they were able to come together and say, ‘Part of my journey is to do good for others.’ That’s an extraordinary act, and one that resonates with me in the deepest possible way."

In her words, it "stripped us of all the artifice we had."

"We began to see each other in our humanness," she said. "And that triggered spontaneous acts of kindness, that continue to this day. How are we different [one year later]? We’re much more different in our relationships — and the core of that is kindness and compassion."

In her blog posts on the town site OneNewtown.org, Llodra has repeatedly called for acts of kindness — especially performed in one’s own community — as an appropriate way to honor the community of Newtown and the 26 lives that were lost on Dec. 14.

In October, she laid out her plan for the one-year anniversary.

"Our community is choosing to remember and honor those who lost their lives in that awful tragedy in ways that are quiet, personal, and respectful – centered on the themes of kindness, love, and service to others," she wrote. "We suggest that in the weeks leading up to that date, organizations, businesses, families, faith communities, and individuals pledge an act of kindness to one another."

Llodra says she thinks the past year has made her more patient, more willing to understand differences and to accept those differences.

For Newtown Congregational Church Senior Pastor Matt Crebbin, compassion for his community fills everything he does.

"The compassion in and beyond this community has been amazing," he said. "I’ve been connected to folks who have experienced tragedy and trauma beyond here. While our situation was unique and captured the imagination of people, I’m so impressed by folks who have genuine compassion in the midst of our own lives. I try to bring that compassion to the ministry."

Crebbin likes to remind his parishioners that communication is key: we need to listen more attentively to each other.

"We need to talk through things," he said. "We need to hear each other. We need to accept sometimes people are angry because they feel powerless. It’s hard to feel like you have control over things when something like this happens. People are angry about the event, but a lot of times the anger frustration and anxiety come bubbling up in other ways. Someone may be upset or angry about this, but it may be tied into other things."

Leaders can encourage kindness, but what about those who make it their goal? One Newtown-based group has done just that, embracing a project to inspire generosity and compassion around the world.

Kindness As A Mission

Charlotte Bacon loved the color pink. She loved animals, especially her yellow lab Lily. She loved exploring and getting into trouble. And most of all, she loved her family.

"She was boldness, she was mischief, and she was love," her parents remember onMySandyHookFamily.org, the site launched by families earlier this week to honor the victims of 12/14. "She made us laugh daily with her crazy antics and were amazed by her clever insight and curiosity. We miss her singing loudly with the car radio, hearing her feet always running, never walking down the hallway in our home."

So it was only right that Charlotte’s parents Joel and JoAnn wanted to honor her by encouraging other kids to do the same.

“We just thought it was appropriate to honor Charlotte in this manner — around kindness,” says Newtown Kindness founder Aaron Carlson. “And really it's the one thing that the Bacons want to support. They're not interested in politics and guns and mental health. Kindness seems to be a no brainer.”

A Sandy Hook father, Carlson’s daughter Ava was close friends with Charlotte. He formed Newtown Kindness in January to support moves toward the kind of world he thought she would like to see.

“The fact is, the community of Newtown is focused on kindness,” he says. “There’s so much amazing kindness directed towards us, it’s really part of what changed our perspective here and made us think we need to get involved in it. There’s so much kindness out there, you see it and you want to be a part of it.”

To that end, Newtown Kindness has held lemonade drives. They’ve done walk-a-thons. And they’ve hosted the Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Awards. Maybe the first of its kind, the awards celebrate kids who perform nice deeds for friends, family or strangers.

In a new initiative just launched earlier this month, the group is spreading “Kindness Buckets” to schools near and far, encouraging teachers to reward kids for their acts of love. The concept is simple.

“Kids do kind acts, write them down and put them in the bucket,” says Newtown Kindness board member Carolyn Walker. “We built this whole educational program around the buckets …  They go out with a teaching program and the teachers follow the instructional guide, teach the kids about kindness.”

Inspired by children’s author Charlotte McCloud’s book Bucket Fillers, the campaign took off when Hawley Elementary School teacher Donna Albano decided to put it into practice.

“So now we’re mailing buckets, books and lesson plans across the country,” Carlson says. “We’re getting this reach and planting this seed of kindness in our youth. It’s a mindset journey. I think it’s fantastic a teacher decides to take some time out in the day and not talk about math, science, writing, but talk about giving and being kind to others. It’s a real change in these schools, and I see it happening a lot here in Newtown.

Kindness buckets have sprung up in schools across Newtown. A good deal of the thanks, Carlson says, goes to a girl named Ariana from Wisconsin, who entered the Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Awards contest in February with the idea.

"Four days before the awards ceremony, I called her and said, ‘We’re going to recognize you,'" Carlson says. "They flew here to Newtown for that event. When she went back home, she became a little superstar there in Wisconsin because now someone had this connection to Newtown. She got a letter from a girl she doesn’t know who said, 'Thank you for being kind.' She used to get bullied and doesn’t anymore because the kids are trying to be more like Ariana. It’s a ripple effect of kindness."

Newtown Kindness will host the second annual Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness awards in Februrary at Edmond Town Hall. Submissions are currently being accepted: what’s your act of kindness?

Spreading Tokens of Joy

What’s the most palpable form of kindness? For the residents who launched Newtown’s chapter of Ben’s Bells, it may be their “kindness tokens,” tiny, colorful flower-shaped trinkets familiar to many in town.

Started in Tucson, Ariz., the Ben’s Bells project has taken hold in Newtown since its operators opened their workshop on Church Hill Road two years ago. Ben’s Bells are available at the Toy Tree and other local establishments. View the video above for a behind-the-scenes look at how Ben’s Bells are made. You’ll hear Ben’s Bells coordinators describing how the bells are crafted and explaining the group's mission of kindness.

While “making” can be one form of kindness, “doing” is another. Next, we’ll look at one Newtown girl who has made helping others her life’s work — at just six years old.

A Little Girl Who Loves to Help

Six-year-old Lucia St. Lorenzo is a student at Head O’ Meadow Elementary School. And for as long as she can remember, she’s been driven to perform acts of kindness for everyone she meets.

Maybe it runs in the family. Her father, Antonio St. Lorenzo, is the founder and CEO of Boot Camp Farms, a non-profit that works with UCONN’s College of Agriculture to manage sustainable hydroponic farms and provide jobs for returning veterans.

"She just has a heart, and she's always looking to help somebody," said Antonio.

This holiday season, Lucia has been on the move. Working with Inn at Newtown owners Rob Ryder and Susan Anzalone, she helped provide a Thanksgiving dinner for Newtown police officers. And all because she noticed the station while in the car with her father.

“Thanksgiving was coming up, and I heard they might not get Thanksgiving dinner," Lucia said. "So I asked daddy if we could make them a dinner.”

The six-year-old barely took a breath before the next act of kindness began.

She took to the streets of Newtown — well, the parking lot outside Big Y and Dunkin Donuts — to hand out green-and-white teddy bears to strangers, passersby, construction workers, Salvation Army workers and anyone else she saw.

Why does she do it? "It just feels good to help people," she says.


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