NEWTOWN, Conn. – Chris Kelsey is the tax assessor in Newtown, but for the better part of three weeks, his job has been setting up and organizing a warehouse to hold the toys, school supplies and other gifts donated in the wake of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary school.
Despite the town’s pleas to stop sending gifts, Kelsey said trucks have been arriving daily with tokens of support from across the world, some for the families of those killed, others for the children of Sandy Hook, still others for the town.
“A lot of the town’s normal business is still on pause,” he said. “I have a couple of people still doing assessor’s business, and then if they can, open mail a couple hours too. We’re all kind of doing what we can to get this done.”
A task force has been set up to coordinate the more than 800 volunteers who have been working to sort the gifts, open mail and answer the thousands of emails and phone calls offering assistance.
The volunteers have begun making a dent in the pile of tens of thousands of teddy bears that stretched to the warehouse ceiling. By last week, they had sorted 30,000 of them into small, medium and large sizes, catalogued them and put them in boxes. They are also separating and boxing piles of crayons, pencils, books and much more.
“It’s a ton of stuff, and we have an operation just as big for mail as well,” Kelsey said.
There are also 26 large moving boxes in the warehouse, each labeled with a victim’s name. When a gift comes in specifically addressed to those families, it goes in those boxes. The families have been coming in periodically to empty them.
A toy giveaway was held for all Newtown children before Christmas and some of the remaining toys and stuffed animals have been taken to children’s hospitals. The rest will be stored until the town decides where they should go, Kelsey said. He said letters have been sent to each of the victim’s families asking for their input. His cellphone is filled with emails from charities across the country.
“Everybody has a hand out,” he said. “We’re just beginning that process now. The charities suggested by the families will get the top priority.”
The work organizing the warehouse is being done by volunteers from Adventist Community Services, a faith-based group that has done similar work after hurricanes and other natural disasters.
“Our thing is warehouses,” said the Rev. William Warcholik, a pastor from Rhode Island. “Our specialty is collecting, organizing and distributing donated goods.”
The group was paired with Kelsey after contacting the town’s volunteer task force. Kevin and Robin Fitzgerald started the group last year to organize neighborhood cleanups following two storms that brought down trees all over town.
“We referred to it as friends with chain saws,” Robin Fitzgerald said.
Immediately after the school massacre, which left 26 people dead, people started calling the Fitzgeralds looking for a way to help in the grief-stricken town. Local churches and businesses began getting similar calls.
After meeting with town officials, the Red Cross and other stakeholders, the Fitzgeralds were put in charge of coordinating the volunteer effort.
They started working in their living room with a couple of cellphones and their own laptop computers. Local businessman Peter D’Amico gave them office space. Companies donated computers, Wi-Fi, phones and other equipment and set up a call center. The Newtown Volunteer Task Force now has a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a toll-free telephone number, 855-364-6600, with eight lines coming in.
“Our mission here is to ease the burden on the town resources, matching people who feel the need to do something with a task that needed to be done,” Kevin Fitzgerald said. “This is work FEMA or someone in government would do after a natural disaster, but there is no such thing for this kind of disaster.”
The group has been deploying about 800 volunteers to open the town’s mail, work at the warehouse and connect potential donations with the correct fund or organization.
Liz Eaton, 70, who lives in the village of Sandy Hook, was sent to the warehouse to help box bears.
“People at church have said they needed some help,” she said. “And I just wanted to help out.”
Others are tasked with returning every phone call that has come into the town offering help.
“We had someone offer 26 granite benches for any memorial,” Robin Fitzgerald said. “That’s put into a list of what we call escalated offers, so we mark that down and when they decide on a memorial they will know about that offer.”
The town originally expected it would take the task force about two weeks to complete its work. The Fitzgeralds said the task force now expects to be working for about three months, possibly longer.
“What we’re telling people on the phone now is that if you are holding a fundraiser in your local community, we appreciate it, but direct those resources to your local community, that’s what the families want,” Robin Fitzgerald said. “About 99 1/2 percent of the time that works. But the other half says, `We’re coming anyway.’ And then we just give them the address of the warehouse or here.”