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NEWTOWN, Conn. — How do you design a memorial that captures the heroism of Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung, who lunged at the shooter, and first-grader Jesse Lewis, who yelled for classmates to run?
As members of the town’s Permanent Memorial Commission embrace the enormous task of creating a marker to honor the 26 administrators, teachers and students who died in last December’s massacre, they say it will require patience and a lot of listening.
“When you find out that the principal charged the gunman and tried to save everyone, we are very humbled trying to express that,” said commission member Agni Pavlidou Kyprianou, 45, of Sandy Hook village, who owns an interior-design business in town. “My understanding is, we are moving with a pace that, first and foremost, the families involved can handle. I don’t think the parents are fully ready to have this memorial built tomorrow.”
In the absence of an official memorial, residents here have been memorializing the victims on a daily basis since the massacre by carrying out acts of kindness.
Kyle Lyddy, 26, the commission’s chair and founder of the We Are Newtown movement, an effort launched on Facebook that has sought to bring the community together, said a woman paid for his coffee last week at Dunkin’ Donuts. She didn’t say why she picked up the tab and left before he could thank her.
“I just kind of knew why,” Lyddy said. “I just kind of understood why.”
Residents here, it seems, are living in the moment. Drivers are being more courteous. A gas-station attendant is receiving more generous tips. A Newtown General Store customer said a man bought him breakfast, handed him a piece of paper bearing the name of a little girl who died at the school and asked him to “pass it on.”
Plea from victims’ families
The victims’ families have appealed for people to mark the first anniversary of the massacre this Saturday by performing acts of kindness.
Kat Holick, 47, who has lived in Sandy Hook her entire life, has been carrying out those acts for the past year. Eight days after the shooting, she set aside her grief and greeted families who stopped by the Edmond Town Hall for a toy giveaway. Holick, dressed in Sandy Hook Elementary green, smiled at everyone.
“I just did, to me, what needed to be done to ease the pain for the families and the town,” she said.
She now volunteers at the town’s municipal center, sorting gifts that were donated to the victims’ families.
“You will get the best reward in your heart,” she said.
Terry O’Neil of Sandy Hook has been using her 14-pound mutt, Yoda, to cheer up people in town. The two are part of the Newtown Strong Therapy Dogs group, launched after the shooting.
Children’s faces, she said, “just light up when they walk toward you.”
There’s nothing quite like being a resident and helping another resident out, O’Neil said.
“We all went through it together,” she said, “and continue to go through it as a community.”
To date, no decisions have been made by the 12-member commission regarding what the memorial will look like, what materials will be used for it or where it will be placed.
The entire process of building a memorial, they say, could take years. Lyddy, who has been inspired that four parents of victims are serving on the board, has been researching memorials dedicated after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.
“I don’t think anything is good enough,” said Lyddy, who works in marketing and is a 2005 graduate of Newtown High School. “I think what we’re trying to do is capture the emotion and true spirit of the community.”
Sarah Middeleer of Newtown, who also serves on the commission and is a landscape designer, said it’s premature to put any ideas of hers out in public.
“The time will come,” she said. “I’m very honored to be on the commission, and it’s going to be emotionally very difficult, and I think the hard work will pay off.”
Since the end of December 2012, when the town removed the elaborate memorials that popped up in the wake of the massacre, some residents have yearned for a place to mourn, a marker to touch and somewhere they could go to feel whole again.
Richard Gray of Merritt Island, Fla., a property maintenance worker, felt compelled to do something and has helped fill the void.
“I have a little girl myself,” he said, referring to his 7-year-old daughter, Jayden. “She’s the same age as those kids that were lost that day. I couldn’t imagine her not coming home on the school bus.”
Gray — who grew up in Gouldsboro, Maine, and does not have Connecticut ties — designed a granite memorial, the “Rock of Angels.” He was part of a team that spent months working to bring his idea to fruition in Sullivan, Maine.
The memorial, which was dedicated in August, sits behind St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sandy Hook and features an angel flanked by four hearts.
It bears the names of the victims and reads, “In loving memory” and “Forever in our hearts … always in our minds …”
The idea for the design, he said, came to him in a series of dreams; in the first one, he was looking at a blank stone and turned to see people behind him, watching.
“I wanted kids to be able to climb on it and get up there and touch it and be a part of it,” he said. “I wanted everybody in Connecticut to know they weren’t going through it alone.”