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Newtown inundated with gifts, money

December 22, 2012 11:30:19 AM PST
Peter Leone 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."

Money, toys, food and other gifts have poured in from around the world as Newtown mourns the loss of 20 children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School a little over a week ago. The 20-year-old shooter, Adam Lanza, killed his mother before attacking the school then killing himself. Police don't know what caused him to massacre first-graders, teachers, school staff or his mother.

Saturday, all the town's children were invited to town hall to choose from among hundreds of toys donated by individuals, organizations and toy stores.

The basement of the building resembled a toy store, with piles of stuffed penguins, Barbie dolls, board games, soccer balls 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.

"But we're not checking IDs at the door," said Tom Mahoney, the building administrator, who's in charge of handling gifts. "If there is a child from another town who comes in need of a toy, we're not going to turn them away."

The United Way of Western Connecticut said the official fund for donations had $2.6 million in it Saturday morning. Others sent envelopes stuffed with cash to pay for coffee, 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 town and set up a unique post office box to handle it. The parcels come decorated with rainbows and hearts drawn by school children.

Some letters arrive 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 contain checks.

"This is just the proof of the love that's in this country," said Postmaster Cathy Zieff.

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 on Main Street to drop off food, or toys, or cash.

"There's so much stuff coming in," Mahoney, of Newtown, said. "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 babysat 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 that 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.

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