Newtown sifts through avalanche of altruism

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NEWTOWN, Conn. — Christmas is gone, and with it the satellite trucks, and now the residents of this most famous small town in America are left with tens of thousands of teddy bears that they don’t know what to do with. Mountains of plush stuffed animals — some the size of grizzlies — await itemizing and boxing in a warehouse just east of Main Street, where the highest flag in town now flies at full-staff.

Two weeks after the shooting at nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School, nearly a week after the streets were jammed with hearses and funeral processions, Newtown is digging itself out from an avalanche of altruism.

On Thursday afternoon, the warehouse for donations contained more gifts than there are residents of Newtown (28,000): letters of condolence from Pakistan, granola bars from Utah, boxes of teddy bears outfitted in leather pilot jackets that were hand-delivered by a man who drove up from Texas.

No matter the nature of a tragedy, the ensuing donations always outweigh what’s actually needed, said Lauren Trahan, a member of the Adventist Community Services’ disaster response team.

“For Americans, the way you help is you give stuff,” said Trahan, who lives across the state, in Plainfield, Conn.

“It’s how people make themselves feel better,” said Christopher Kelsey, a former Newtown assessor who is handling logistics at the warehouse.

“And that’s not a bad thing,” Trahan said.

Coping with generosity, however, has become a full-time job for volunteers in Newtown. At the warehouse, which is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., boxes the size of a hot tub are labeled with the names of families of the victims (“Hubbard,” “Hsu,” “Hochsprung”). Pallets of toys are wheeled into a room where residents box and label them (“6 medium teddy bears” and “484,” the inventory code for stuffed animals). The boxes are then stacked in the back of the warehouse until the town can decide what to do with them; most will likely be re-donated to needier parts of the country.

Everyone should “stop sending us things,” Bill Hart, a grateful but overwhelmed town Board of Education member, told the News-Times newspaper this week.

The inventory of donations continues about a mile east of the warehouse in a suite of donated office space, where the Newtown Volunteer Task Force staffs a call center. There, using eight phone lines, volunteers have returned about 2,200 of 20,000 calls from out-of-towners who have offered to donate everything from coloring books to a two-night stay at a cottage on their farm in Lake Como, Pa. Each caller and offer is entered into a database for future reference.

One man called from California last week to say he was about to drive to Newtown with a carload of teddy bears that he’d collected from his neighborhood. Newtown resident Kevin Fitzgerald, who helped organize the task force last year to aid in storm cleanup, had to persuade the man that it would be more useful to stay in California and ship his items, or donate them there.

Fitzgerald, however, understands everyone’s desire to feel useful in the aftermath of such an abstract tragedy.

“It’s not like a building fell over and you can clean up debris,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s nothing tangible you can fix.”

Amid the rush to help, at least one person tried to exploit the tragedy for personal gain. The FBI charged a New York woman Thursday with posing as the aunt of a child killed in the attack to collect donations.

Nouel Alba, 37, appeared Thursday in federal court in Hartford, Conn., and was released on $50,000 bond, the Associated Press reported.

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