The Story of the Stuff: Issues in Temporary Memorial Preservation

Differing Opinions & Approaches

By the Monday following the tragedy, a large shrine had developed along the “Hook” – a quaint shop-lined stretch of road in Sandy Hook leading up to the school. The streets were lined with stuffed animals, votive candles, flowers, Christmas trees, and decorations. Like Virginia Tech, there was both a localized temporary memorial and also a massive influx of mailed materials. According to the town tax assessor, Chris Kelsey, on the Tuesday following the shooting a Budget truck full of teddy bears pulled up outside the town hall, a harbinger of the barrage of items to follow (C. Kelsey, personal communication, March 27, 2013).

In anticipation, Kelsey secured 80,000 square feet of warehouse space by Wednesday, December 19, 2012, just five days after the shooting, to help with the forthcoming deluge of packages. By the weekend before Christmas, the warehouse was full of toys, school supplies, and countless other donations. Kelsey called upon fellow government employees as the initial work crew and then reached out to Robin Fitzgerald, the director of the Newtown Volunteer Task Force to send more help. The day after Christmas, a faith-based non-profit, the Adventist Community Services (ACS), sent trained reinforcements. This group, which typically helps communities deal with the donations following natural disasters, adapted their honed disaster response skills to help Newtown and relieve the exhausted local workforce. In the immediate days of the ACS support, between 50 and 60 volunteers worked daily to sort toys.

Following the tragedy, mail to the victims’ families was also diverted to the warehouse for sorting and processing. According to Kelsey, there were often “tractor trailer loads that were just backed up and trucks would kind of stack up at the loading docks.” In the initial months, they saw the arrival of at least three UPS and FedEx trucks each day (C. Kelsey, personal communication, March 27, 2013). Donations reached their peak on New Year’s Eve—that night, over 100 volunteers were required to process the incoming material. Around that same time, Kelsey agreed to a number of press interviews and in each one asked the public to stop sending materials.

The donations sent to the town, however, were only part of the story. In addition to the packages and donations, there was also a flood of traditional mail—letters, cards, and papers—that amounted to more than half a million mailings. This mail accumulated rapidly and was placed in bins that lined the hallways of the town hall for nearly two months so the public could view the letters. Kelsey described having the materials there, in front of all the town workers offices, as “working in a wake” (C. Kelsey, personal communication, March 27, 2013).

Initially, the envelopes on incoming mail were discarded to save space. This proved problematic, however, when in January Newtown’s volunteer task force set out to read and respond to every letter. Re-tracing the address origin posed a tough task for these volunteers and subsequent envelopes were kept. The group of volunteers worked in two shifts and read every letter that came into town. Among the expressions of sympathy were checks and cash donations as well as pledges of larger donations to be given or already given in the victims’ names. A running spreadsheet of these offers runs some six hundred pages long.

Two Newtown residents, Yolie Moreno and Ross MacDonald, independently visited the town hall and found these mailings so moving they each began documentation efforts to preserve the letters. MacDonald alerted the New York Times and Mother Jones magazine about the possible plans to burn the letters and began taking pictures with his cell phone and posting them onto a blog entitled, “Letters to Newtown.” Both news outlets covered the story; Mother Jones also created an activist video and sponsored a Tumblr blog in an effort to save the letters. Moreno, meanwhile, gathered up a group of volunteers with the ambitious goal to photograph each and every letter sent to Newtown. She began work first at the town hall and later expanded to a donated storefront, dubbed the Newtown Healing Arts Center, which operated in the spring and early summer of 2013, for a total of about six months. There, Moreno sorted letters by state and country of origin and then began scanning them with help from volunteers on two donated Xerox machines. The subsequent scans were stored on donated Dropbox cloud storage.

Communication between these two simultaneous but independent efforts was sparse due to the different outlooks of the activists.

In the midst of these two competing efforts, Newtown’s C.H. Booth Library, a public library with fewer than a dozen staff, also sparked the idea to start a preservation effort of their own. Reference librarian Andrea Zimmermann began discussions with Kelsey and other town officials and decided to select one to two thousand letters for a representative archive to be placed online and approximately five thousand letters for a physical collection to be housed at the state’s library and maintained on behalf of Newtown.

Each of these four individuals who became caught up in dealing with Newtown's "stuff" had different perspectives about what should be done with the material long-term.


Explore the four different perspectives along this path. As you do, consider: 

  • With which character do you most identify? Why? 
  • Are you also able to understand the perspective of the others? 
  • Whose voices matter most in deciding what to do with the materials?

(Note: For a more in-depth perspective, watch the videos in The Story of the Stuff that follow each character over the course of 2013.)

This page has paths: