Healing Newtown: How humanity’s worst brought out its best

 Mary Hamilton stares at a treasure map. Somewhere within its maze of dotted lines and obstacles lies the treasure. But it’s not gold or dollars or even notoriety that lurks within its riddle. It’s a glimpse into the mind of a child. A child traumatized by the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.

Darien resident Hamilton is an art therapist. She owns her own business in Westport called Art for Therapy. She’s the president of the Connecticut Art Therapy Association. She’s a mother of twins.

But when she heard of the horror that took the lives of 20 children and six adults, her identity, along with the identities of anyone watching the tragedy unfold, united with parents of Newtown.

“I was horrified,” she recalled. “It felt like, this state of shock. I actually had to go down to the beach right after that, because I just needed to have, something. It was just so bad as it was unfolding.”

Four days later, she knew she needed to act. She “checked in” with herself first, she said, to make sure she was prepared mentally for what could be an intense psychological experience. Three weeks later she was in Newtown.

Hamilton and psychologist Amber Kemp-Gerstel organized an art therapy and reading program workshop in early January for Newtown children aged 4 to 7.

“We all need to find meaning in the suffering and grave loss of this tragedy, and in some small way by offering a safe outlet for families to come together and enjoy their community, we hope that this local event will help in the healing process,” Hamilton said at that time.

But there was more work to be done.

• • •

Eagleman & Friends
by Johnny Kwap, age 7

Eagleman can fly really fast. He has night vision. He is strong and powerful.

Eagleman can also swim really fast and can breathe underwater. He lives in Taunton Lake in Newtown, and he rescues people.

Eagleman will fly like lightning to find trouble and report back to his superhero friends, so together they can make all things better

Kristina Applegate also knew she needed to do something after the Dec. 14 tragedy. Like Americans who refer to the attacks on the

World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001 as “9-11”, Newtowners call the massacre that took 26 of their lives “12-14”.

Having grown up in Ridgefield, Applegate found herself far removed from her home state while living in bucolic Vermont.

“Very soon after this event occurred, every one of us was trying to figure out how we could help,” Applegate said.

She is the founder of Kids Share Workshops, an organization that works with children who have experienced trauma to express their creativity through book-making in a cross-cultural context. It started in 2007, and Applegate has completed projects in several states and countries, including Nicaragua, Guatemala and Costa Rica.

Applegate wanted to do something, but the level of trauma in Newtown far surpassed her comfort zone. She also wanted the community to invite her, she said, as she didn’t want to impose upon them at such a dire moment.

“I wanted the community to hear about it, and decide if it was a good idea,” she said.

She posted something on Facebook to test the waters. It turned out to be a good idea, according to Lauren Lee and Jennifer Ponte Canning, both Ridgefield High School graduates who had reconnected to Applegate at a recent school reunion.

Lee, now living in Warren, had known Dawn Hochsprung, Sandy Hook Elementary’s principal and one of Adam Lanza’s 26 victims. The two had worked together at a middle school, and her husband had known Hochsprung for years prior.

The three women met to figure out how they could work together.

“I went to that first lunch meeting and [Applegate] and I and Lauren just clicked immediately,” recalled Canning, whose background is in journalism and public relations. “It was pretty much immediately apparent that we had shared passions and that we actually work really well together.”

A plan was coming together, but there was a missing piece. They needed someone who could handle the depth of trauma that appeared insurmountable.

That’s when they connected with Darien resident Hamilton, who helped Kids Share develop a system that would help the children express themselves in a therapeutic environment.

“On one level, they’re drawing out a treasure map,” Hamilton said, “but it’s really looking at, ‘What do they need to feel safe? What are the areas that they’re looking to uncover or reveal, or hide or bury?’ It’s underlying themes, psychologically, that we’re looking at through this work.”

Hamilton added that there’s a common misconception that art therapy is about drawing things to feel better, or that only artists can experience this type of treatment. That’s not the case, she says.

“It’s really about self-expression,” she said. “You can take a crayon and express what you’re feeling in that moment through line and shape. It doesn’t have to be an actual object you’re drawing.”

Parents should be careful not to overanalyze their children’s drawings, Hamilton said, but some art might be telling. Water can represent motherhood, she said; a tree drawn a certain way can mean trauma; an empty bird’s nest can illustrate a feeling of abandonment.

While working with the children, Hamilton had to be acutely aware of the tiniest signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and other potential problems. Some of the children had seen the carnage as they were rushed out of the school. One Kids Share volunteer had to excuse herself when a child began to recall the experience.

“We had some children disclose what they’ve seen,” Hamilton said. “There were several kids who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School who saw the aftermath of what happened. They’re 7-year-old kids.”

But these revelations can be an important part of the healing process, Hamilton said. As a modality, art therapy is an extension of psychotherapy, according to the book “Art Therapy” by David Edwards, a British art therapist. It has been used successfully for a range of conditions, from childhood trauma to war-induced stress disorders. Many war veterans use art therapy as a means to cope with the horrors of battle, Hamilton said.

In Newtown, the results have been inspiring, she said, as Kids Share took on a life of its own.

• • •

Kristen Marshall’s 7-year-old daughter was in the classroom across the hall from the first grade rooms that Adam Lanza chose to target. On the school’s intercom, which had been turned on once the carnage ensued, gunfire and screams echoed through the entire school.

“There’s survivor’s guilt,” Marshall said. “Why are my kids OK and untouched and others aren’t? You start scenario-playing in your head: What if he turned to his right instead of left, it would have been my daughter’s class.”

Compelled through a combination of emotions and realizations, Marshall decided to help. She volunteered with Kids Share, and her three children participated. That experience brought her comfort, she said.

“Just to see my kids interacting with their friends, showcasing their creativity, opening up about how they feel, sharing with others — it was pretty powerful,” Marshall said.

The project was broken up into chapter groups, with each group focusing on a creative theme — a superhero team, a time travel team, an island team and a kingdom team.

Help has poured in from across the country. Frank Brummett of BerylMartin, a printing and design company based in Indiana, has offered to produce an initial run of Kids Share Newtown books for free. There will even be a film documenting the making of the book.

Filmmakers Salome Oggenfuss spent three days in Newtown filming the project for a short documentary produced by Nina Day. The film is expected to be finished by August, with a premiere showing in Newtown sometime after.

“The focus is to celebrate the effort of a community coming together,” Day said. “People coming together to celebrate who they are and where they come from is valid no matter what.”

• • •

For Newtown resident Marshall, Newtown is not a place where people keep to themselves, afraid of or detached from their neighbors. It’s not a place where television cameras are perched on every street corner. It’s not a place where mass murders happen everyday.

The real story of Newtown is one of hope, Marshall said. It’s one of resilience, faith and kindness. While its residents continue to bear the burden of a tragedy too dark for words, there is something profound emerging. It has called together people from all walks of life to nurture the healing process and reinforce a fragile hope held tenuously together by selfless acts of kindness.

The worst of humanity seems to have brought out the best of humanity, Marshall said.

When a room of parents and children were asked during Kids Share to express in a single word what they thought Newtown was, Marshall’s daughter was one of the first to raise her hands.

“Safe,” her daughter said.

Hamilton’s two 4-year-old children came with her during the workshop, an experience that she said she’ll keep forever.

“They’ve made connections that are just incredible,” she said. “We’re going to stay connected somehow after this.”

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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