Jan Goodwin 2014-08-12 12:25:28
Following the Sandy Hook shooting, Lions in Newtown are helping parents, siblings, schoolchildren, school staff and first responders deal with their grief. Sandy Hook is a small, tight-knit community in Connecticut, where people know one another or know of one another. Those few degrees of separation were poignant in the extreme when 20 first-graders and six educators were killed in an act of unimaginable violence at the elementary school there on Dec. 14, 2012. Residents were so stunned and shocked by what happened to family, friends and neighbors that they find it easier to refer to that fateful day as 12/14, just as traumatized New Yorkers refer to 9/11. “My stepson, Jeff Thomas, was one of those first responders after the school shooting,” says Ray Keegan, then president of the 65-member Newtown Lions Club. (Sandy Hook is part of Newtown.) Thomas and the other volunteer firemen were charged with removing the 26 bodies after the brutal massacre. “Don’t look down,” they were warned. “Just put your arms down. We will tell you when to pick up.” The high trajectory bullets caused such devastating injuries it took hours to identify the children who had died. It’s also why only one child was able to have an open coffin. “I can’t imagine what it was like for Jeff and his fellow firemen to have to see what you never want to see,” says Keegan. “He had sleepless nights, and he went into therapy afterward, as did many. Remember, those men were all volunteer firemen.” The nephew of longtime Lion member, George Arfaras, 82, was one of the first police officers to enter the school. Detective Jayson Frank, a father of two, one of whom was then a first-grader, spent a long of time searching the Sandy Hook Elementary School for a second gunman initially thought to be involved. “He saw the children who’d been shot, and he was in total shock. He couldn’t believe it. It affected him very badly,” says Arfaras. “His wife told me they’d be in the car driving somewhere, and Jayson would have to pull over to the side of the road and just cry.” Arfaras was so concerned he tried to talk his nephew into quitting the force. “He’s seen too much. Those poor little kids, those babies.” The 6-year-old who lived next door to Arfaras also died in the shooting. “Before that, I’d see him playing in the yard with his brother. I’d wave to him, and he’d wave back. He was a sweet kid. Even now, it’s very hard to talk about what happened. I just can’t imagine losing a child that way. It’s the worst thing in the world.” Keegan was driving to work in nearby Hamden when police cars began racing in the direction of his hometown. Through a Twitter feed he learned that someone had been shot at the school. Then the report of the number of shootings increased. Suddenly, there were helicopters over Sandy Hook. Unable to focus on work, he turned around and headed home. “I walked into the house, switched on the TV and all the stations were covering what had happened. It was horrifying. Sandy Hook was a nice, quiet, safe community, with a low crime rate. This sort of thing never happened here.” His telephone began ringing, and didn’t stop. Local Lions wanted to know what they could do to help. He immediately called together the club’s board members to ask the same question. “We discussed raising money for scholarships, a possible memorial and counseling. But counseling became our No. 1 priority,” says Keegan. The club already had a 50lc3 in place for fundraising. “We knew victims’ families, friends and first responders would be seriously traumatized. We wanted to be able to support therapy for 10 years. We thought we would go through $100,000,” says Keegan. They immediately launched the Sandy Hook Emergency Fund, or SHEF. A concert at the Newtown Library generated funds for SHEF. Lion Bob Schmidt and his wife, Josie, played. So did Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame. But the club realized more funds were needed. “People think that counseling in such cases is covered,” says Keegan. “It isn’t.” Newtown Lions applied for several grants from various nonprofits to raise extra funds to cover the cost of therapy, without success. So the club did a national appeal. The LION ran a story. And, more importantly, members got busy. Walter Schweikert, 71, the president immediately before Keegan, contacted every Lions club in the country to ask for donations. “I wore out two printers writing to more than 13,000 clubs nationwide,” he says. “It took me six months. All our club members pitched in to stuff envelopes.” It wasn’t hard to stay motivated. “I have five grandkids, one of whom, living in the next town over, is the same age as those children at Sandy Hook who died. It struck so close to me. I look at what happened there, and it could have been my little Morgan.” He admits that it was months before he could drive through Sandy Hook without breaking down. A semi-retired investment broker, Schweikert, 71, joined the Lions in 2002. “I’d been traveling around the world continuously for my job,” he says. “Seventy-five trips in nine years all over the Pacific Rim, Africa, Europe, South America. I was away more days than I was home. I wanted to be a real part of this community. “What made the shooting even harder was that it was so close to Christmas,” he says. “People were just devastated. My wife, Peggy, had been a teaching aide at the Sandy Hook school before she retired. She knew some of the educators who were killed.” As brutal as it was, this tragedy had made a tight community even closer. “I was at a workshop not so long ago when the mother of one of the children killed came up to me,” says Schweikert. “She wanted to thank me for everything the Lions had done for all those affected. She said without the help of the Lions, many people would not be able to go on. I told her, ‘You are families, our next door neighbors, our friends. We couldn’t do anything else. When something like this comes up, how can we not respond?’” It was close to home for Schmidt, too, a licensed therapist. He once served as president of Connecticut’s Counseling Association, teaches counseling at Fairfield University in Connecticut and chairs the Lions’ SHEF fund. Josie, a retired teacher, was a former president of the PTA at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She also subbed at the school and knew some of the staff who were killed. Their daughter Lauren attended the school as a child. “The initial reports went from ‘someone was shot in the foot’ to suddenly there were all these plastic body bags in the school driveway,” says Josie. “I could only ask, ‘Oh my, what does that mean, what does it mean?’ By then, my daughter Lauren was getting panicked calls from her best friend. Her son at the school was missing. Adds Josie, “As a teacher at various schools in the area, we were always practicing for an emergency. But it was how to hide children from a tornado. Never to hide them from someone looking to shoot small kids.” Josie has been acting as SHEF’s unofficial secretary, organizing patients’ therapy files. “It’s heartbreaking to see how many folders we have, and they aren’t diminishing. Those poor people, who more than a year later are still struggling, still needing counseling.” Newtown Lions were able to pay out $350,000 for counseling in 15 months. SHEF has supported counseling for more than 275 people including Sandy Hook Elementary School children and their immediate family members, school staff and first responders. Arfaras’s nephew, Det. Frank, was among those who benefited. The fund pays the deductibles and copays of those with insurance, and the entire cost for those lacking mental health coverage “Requests for assistance have not diminished,” says Schmidt. “They have increased over the past 12 months. People will need counseling for years, and insurance companies limit what they will cover.” The club wishes it had more to give for counseling. Grief and PTSD can last years, according to Schmidt. “People with post-traumatic stress will be in a heightened awareness state. It they hear a loud noise, they may jump and hide. Or hearing a scream or yell, they panic.” Even smells can cause problems. Some Sandy Hook students likened the shooting smell to burned popcorn. So when one child smelled popcorn, he was terrorized all over again. These kinds of reactions are why the elementary school has been torn down. A new one will go up on the site, but it will not be operative until the affected children are too old to attend. Currently, students are being bused to two separate schools in the area, where doors now have felt padding so they cannot be loudly slammed. Therapy dogs, including two large and loveable St. Bernards, are also present to soothe and calm. Studies have long shown that stroking a pet lowers blood pressure. “Dogs are mood reflectors,” adds Schmidt. “They can sense what your mood is. If you are sad, they will cozy up next to you. It’s amazing how the animals really help. We have different breeds. When they are working, the dogs wear little vests, with the names of their animal therapy group. They’ll be calm, four-legged professionals. Take off the vests, and they’d become goofy and playful. It’s amazing to see.” In those early days, trauma specialists were contacted. Lori Leyden, an expert in psycho-neuroimmunology, received a phone call at her home in California on Saturday, the day after the shooting. She arrived in Sandy Hook that next Tuesday. She has never left. A specialist in Emotional Freedom Techniques, EFT, or tapping therapy, Leyden has very successfully used the technique on survivors of the Rwandan genocide who were orphaned, U.S. inmates, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and victims of the Boston marathon bombing. EFT was used after the war in Kosovo and during conflict resolution in post-apartheid South Africa. Leyden taught the therapy to Schmidt (a Lion), who in turn has been training other counselors to use it with traumatized victims of Sandy Hook. “This community will continue to have waves and waves of trauma,” she says. “Every birthday of a child or loved one, everything written about what happened triggers the tragedy, and memories of the tragedy.” EFT combines psychotherapy with a form of acupuncture that relies on tapping with the fingertips instead of needles. The process helps to calm down the amygdala, the brain’s fight or flight or fear center, which plays a key role in the regulation of emotions. “Trauma is neurological. The amygdala freezes, if you will, and requires some somatic relief,” explains Leyden. “Your physiology is on autopilot. EFT resets the amygdala.” Sandy Hook horrified her. “When I arrived, we discussed a community-based project, and recognized that it needed long-term commitment. I hit the ground running, working initially with medical examiners and first responders.” Leyden, who has been using EFT for more than 20 years, explains that the therapy is also a new form of humanitarian aid combining trauma healing, building families, and sustainability. “Often times in tragedies, aid funding goes to food, housing, and education. But without trauma healing, it doesn’t work. In Rwanda, the results were quite extraordinary.” Unexpectedly, she found herself using Rwandan genocide orphans to help the severely traumatized 12-year-old brother of Jesse Lewis, a first-grader killed in the shooting. “JT spent hours waiting with me at the firehouse, where parents of first-graders were asked to gather,” the boys’ mother, Scarlett Lewis, says. “There were so many rumors flying. I never thought anything had happened to Jesse. You never think it will happen to you. At the firehouse, parents were being reunited with their children.” She went from one to another asking, “Have you seen my son, Jesse?” Someone said, “Yes, I think he ran over to the house next door.” “But he wasn’t there,” Lewis says. “Then we were told he was probably hiding in the woods from the shooter. Six hours later, a man I didn’t know kneeled in front of where JT and I sat, and said abruptly, ‘There’s no easy way to say this. Your son is dead.’” Lewis and JT were devastated. Returning home, Lewis recognized their heartbreak and anguish was also matched by their anger at what had happened. “JT was so angry at the loss of his little brother, he punched a hole in his bedroom wall. He wouldn’t go to school. I couldn’t make him. School was supposed to be a safe place. But I sent Jesse there and he died.” “On the one hand, I was very proud of Jesse. He received a hero’s funeral,” she says. “I knew he had been brave and saved children.” Investigators had interviewed child survivors, and Lewis learned that the shooter entered Jesse’s classroom continuing his killing spree. Jesse was standing next to his beloved teacher, Victoria Soto, 27, when she was shot and killed. Then Adam Lanza’s gun ran out of bullets. He had taped two clips together and had to remove the clip, turn it around, and reinsert it into the semiautomatic rifle. While Lanza reloaded, Jesse yelled to the kids, frozen in shock, on the other side of room: ‘Run, run!” They fled, and nine children’s lives were saved. Jesse was on the wrong side of the classroom. Recounting the story, Lewis’ voice wavers and she cries. “My little boy was shot once through the hairline of his head. He had wounds on his face, but he was whole. I didn’t realize we were very blessed to be able to have an open casket.” Still weeping, Lewis recounts how at Jesse’s wake, police officers, two by two, came to salute her 6-year-old son in his coffin. “I didn’t know then that it was in honor of Jesse’s bravery,” she says. Similarly, when Jesse’s coffin in the hearse made its way to his funeral, there were 60 officers standing to attention in the parking lot, and police motorcycle escorts on either side of the hearse. “When I heard he used his last few seconds on earth to try to save his friends, I was not surprised,” says Lewis. “It’s who Jesse was. He was always very brave, and now he was dead.” For a month, Lewis and JT sat at home, angry at the world. “We were faltering,” she says. Then Leyden told Jesse’s mother and brother that she had two Rwanda genocide orphans who wanted to reach out to JT. Via Skype and an interpreter, Chantel spoke first. “You will feel joy again. I did,” she promised JT. It was an amazing statement after what she had been through. Chantel was 8 when her entire family was murdered in front of her by the neighbors she’d grown up with. They broke into her home and slaughtered them with machetes. Then, picking the girl up by her hair, they cut her throat, slashed her body and buried her in a shallow grave. Chantel didn’t die but she didn’t move for several days, until it was safe to dig her way out. She spent the rest of her childhood in an orphanage. Chantel told JT, “I had to look outside my own grief to start to heal. Now, I’m a community leader. Now I am happy.” During the mass killings Mattieu hid in the mountains overlooking his village. He ate grass for three months, while knowing that everyone he knew likely was being murdered. In 100 days of genocidal insanity, over 1 million Rwandans were slaughtered. His mother died. His father was so traumatized he couldn’t function. But Mattieu turned his life around, he told the grieving JT, because he was able to be grateful for what he did have, work in service to others, and ultimately, forgive. The two young Rwandans led Jesse’s brother in an EFT tapping exercise during the 90-minute Skype call. “We hung on their every word,” says Lewis. “Afterward, JT and I went back to our respective couches in the living room. I said we have a home, neighbors bringing us food. We have family. We have the love and prayers of the entire world, a lot of blessings. We can move forward.” JT went back to school and started fundraising. In a short time he’d raised enough to send a Rwandan genocide orphan to college. Lewis went on to write a book about what happened to Jesse, titled “Nurturing Healing Love: A Mother’s Journey of Hope & Forgiveness.” “Miracles can come out of tragedies,” says Leyden. “I know this to be true.” Sandy Hook is still learning this.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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