PEPPERELL -- Three days before Christmas, resident Deb Marciano made the three-hour drive into Newtown, Conn., with $1,400 in $20 bills in her pocket. She had collected the cash from residents and businesses of Townsend, Pepperell and Ashby to donate to the first responders of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that had taken place only a week before.
As she and her sister-in-law Patti Robinson pulled into Sandy Hook, a small sub-community in Newtown, a three-mile backup of traffic on Main Street greeted them as residents from all across the nation attempted to visit the many memorials dedicated to the 26 victims of the shooting. Dozens of people stood somberly, faces wet with tears, in front of rows of Christmas trees that lined the street, one for each child killed. Signs commemorating lives lost adorned trees and fence posts everywhere they looked. Thousands of teddy bears and other assorted toys crowded every sidewalk from the center of town into Sandy Hook. Twenty stockings hung from the fence of the Sandy Hook cemetery, and 20 small angels representing the children stood everywhere.
"It was memorial after memorial. You couldn't get through there without sobbing," said Marciano.
But she and Robinson were on a mission. After finally making it to the traffic stop and explaining their purpose to the police officer, the women were waved through.
"We said we drove from Massachusetts and we really want to get gift cards to the first responders. He said go right ahead," said Marciano.
Earlier that day, the women had stopped at five local restaurants in Newtown on their way into Sandy Hook, using the collected $1,400 in $25 increments to buy hundreds of restaurant gift cards for the first responders to the shooting. Before making the drive, Marciano had called the proprietors to alert them to her mission, and they were all happy to oblige.
"Sal Pepe's was closed, but they drove in just to meet us," said Marciano. "They knew we were coming and they wanted to be a part of it."
Meeting with the restaurant owners took three hours.
"They were all full of hugs. They were so appreciative," she said. "We were talking about our kids in school and trying to get to know each other. It felt like we were connected in some way. And I guess we were. We're trying to share some of their grief."
Marciano and Robinson traveled through Sandy Hook to deliver the gift cards to the Fire and Police departments. The fire station stands right in front of the elementary school. Marciano was greeted by firefighter Michael Reyen.
"He's shaking his head and looking at me with a grin on his face like, 'What did you do?' He was so excited, he gave me the biggest hug," she said.
Marciano handed over half of the gift cards, telling Reyen she was present on behalf of the entire community that had rallied around Newtown.
"He said, 'You don't know how much of a relief this is. We've been so exhausted. It's been overwhelming,'" said Marciano.
Next, Marciano delivered gift cards to the police station. Although none of the first responders had returned to work since the tragedy, she was told that the gift cards would make it to them.
"It was very, very healing," she said.
As Marciano and Robinson drove out of town, they contemplated what else they could do for the community. After the shooting and the nation's overwhelming response, the town and the families had asked for no more donations of toys or money. Over $3 million dollars had been raised for the families, said Marciano. Still, she said, she wants to keep the memories of the victims alive within the North Middlesex community. Right now, she and Pam Mariano, owner of Bailey's Bar and Grill, and other members of the community are planning local events to honor the North Middlesex teachers. They are also looking for suggestions from the community for more fundraising ideas.
"We would like to think of ways to keep them in our thoughts, our hearts," said Marciano.
Marciano can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and Mariano can be contacted at Bailey's Bar and Grille at 978-812-0200.
As for Newtown, Marciano said the community was resilient, and was being extended comfort from all over.
"There's such a strong sense of community throughout the world," said Marciano. "The first response I got was out of all this evil, there were equally enough good due to the response of everybody. It doesn't take away the evil but there's plenty of good to go around."