Originally published Dec. 17, 2012, for Digital First Media and associated publications.
MONROE, Conn. — Clutching two large plastic bags, a young woman emerges from a yellow Volkswagen Beetle parked next to Monroe Congregational Church.
She enters, bound for Wilton Hall, a large multipurpose room with tables pushed against the wall.
One by one, she adds her four stuffed animals to a growing pile of synthetic fur and cotton batting.
There’s a pink one. She smiles. “It’s for any girl they have,” Kelsey Maiolo said. “I’m sure she’ll love that.”
There’s another bearing a New York Giants logo. Another with a detachable kid-sized knit hat.
The last one has a heating pad.
“It’s a nice warm hug,” Maiolo said
‘Teddy Bears for Sandy Hook’
The plush toys – along with more than 200 others — will find new homes with children affected by the Friday shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, which left 20 children and 6 adults dead.
No one seemed quite sure how they’d get there. Bonnie Schneider, a church member who organized the effort, said she’d find a way.
On Monday, the church itself seemed a more than likely place for kindness. The blue double doors of the vast worship hall – home to a congregation of 427 – were lined inside with cardboard boxes holding items for the Monroe Food Pantry and Project From the Heart, which compiles care packages for armed service members.
It was inside those doors Friday night – sometime after the singing of ‘Amazing Grace’ – that Schneider shared the thought of thousands across the state and country wondering, “What can we do?”“It bothered me all night,” said Schneider, who lives in Monroe. “I just know there are a lot of hurting people out there right now.”
She approached her pastor about a teddy bear drive for the survivors of the massacre – or anyone, really.
Anyone in need of a hug.
Saturday night, donors arrived at the church, prompted by Schneider’s Facebook page, “Teddy Bears for Sandy Hook.”
Some were children, still hugging the stuffed animals they planned to give up.
“They were giving them a good hug before they put them down,” Schneider said. “Then, we started giving hugs, because that’s what people here needed. Everybody needs a hug.”
Monroe official: Prayers, not charity, needed
The tragedy spawned an outpouring of support from the community in the form of gift drives and monetary donations, especially in the tiny town of Monroe, which borders Sandy Hook and sits about 7 miles south of Newtown.
There, many yearned to help others. In turn, they felt better, having shined a light on a town veiled in sadness.
Down the road is Monroe’s town hall. Inside, First Selectman Steve Vavrek stepped out of his office to break from a barrage of media phone calls — mostly about Chalk Hill School, where Sandy Hook survivors will reconvene for classes Wednesday.
As far as charity, Vavrek said, Newtown isn’t asking for anything. Newtown, he said, “just wants to be forgotten.”
“Everybody wants to do a bear drive, a backpack drive, a book drive … cook for people,” he added. “That’s all covered. They just want to be, very literally, left alone.”
He offered one suggestion for those wanting to lend a hand:
“Pray that this doesn’t happen again.”
The co-owner of Angels & Company, a religious gift shop in Monroe, said she hasn’t stopped praying since Friday. Customers, at times, join her in prayer at the space on Route 25, where she has carried angel statues, ornaments, charms and other merchandise for the past 13 years.
Larger statues of the Virgin Mary watched from the upper shelves.
“She lost a son, also,” Saglimbene reminded.
On Sunday, the Shelton woman put a jar near her cash register to collect monetary donations. She wanted to do something more tangible to help.
“You never know when one little thing is going to help,” she said, wiping tears from her cheeks. “We’re just trying anything … If you feel it in your heart, just do it.”
By early afternoon, the jar contained a $10 bill and several pennies.
Colleen Coyle, director of religious education for Christ the King Church in nearby Trumbull, stopped in to see her friend and buy a Christmas gift.
As the two discussed the tragedy, Coyle asked about the donation jar.
“We’re giving it to Sandy Hook,” Saglimbene said. “We’re giving it to somebody – maybe St. Rose of Lima.”
Coyle reached for a $20 bill and dropped it in the jar.
“God gives it to you,” she said, “You’ve got to give it back.”