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Newtown First Selectman speaks on overwhelming response to Sandy Hook

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Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra made an excellent suggestion when she addressed the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission last week.

Assign a state agency, she said, to coordinate the flood of charitable offers that can flow in after a catastrophe.

No municipality could have been prepared for the tremendous worldwide outpouring in response to the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. People were shocked and saddened at the brutal slaying of 20 first graders and six educators — the worst elementary school shooting in the nation’s history.

Out of sympathy, people sent 65,000 teddy bears — more than Newtown’s population — hundreds of thousands of cards and letters (many with checks), banners, paintings, peace crane chains and much, much more.

The wide center hallway of town hall was lined with the thousands of personal items for the public to see, and some spilled over to Edmond Town Hall, as well. A warehouse in the southern part of town brimmed with donated items. Numerous volunteers sorted, catalogued, and ultimately helped distribute the goods, even as well-wishers from out of state made pilgrimages to Newtown bearing more banners, paintings and such.

Though the response was meant as a comfort, it was a logistical and emotional challenge for the town where most were still in shock.

Even more difficult to handle, however, were the many offers from providers of various therapeutic services. Who could check credentials? Who could organize the efforts and oversee effectiveness?

This area, in particular, is where a designated state agency would be beneficial. The agency could develop protocols and coordinate the response.

We recommend, however, that distribution of donations remain with the locality. Decisions should lie with the intended recipients, and donors should have no doubt that their contributions would not go for the administrative expenses of a state agency.

The distribution of $11.7 million from donations and fundraisers was lengthy and at times contentious in Newtown, but the deliberative process involving many local people ultimately was as fair as it could be.

The state Attorney General’s office provided oversight in the finances of 77 organizations that raised money from the sale of rubber bracelets to the largest 5K ever in the state, totaling another $16.3 million.

Newtown was able to deal with the outpouring because General Electric loaned four executives to work for months on necessary details such as setting up a common website for the many fundraising groups.

Not every town might have the civic commitment of a General Electric. Not every town has the clear-headed and compassionate leadership of a Pat Llodra.

The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission would do well to heed Llodra’s advice and recommend a state agency be designated in advance to coordinate a response.

We fervently hope, though, such services will never again be needed.

Newstimes
September 18, 2014

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