Former Easton Resident Now Living in Newtown Reflects on Tragedy and Aftermath
Cheri (Lefort) Gillespie Talks About a Community in Unimaginable Pain, and also the Extraordinary Kindness and Love that has Flowed and Continues to Flow Its Way
I saw this post, this powerful post.
The post appeared on Facebook, on Dec. 15; it was written by a woman who lives in Newtown, Conn., and who grew up in Easton.
Here is her post:
Please say some prayers for our town! We need them with the tragedies that have occurred here! This town is like Easton when we were growing up. Quaint and beautiful! Hard to believe this has happened!
The woman who made this post is Cheri (Lefort) Gillespie, a 1977 graduate of Oliver Ames High School.
Cheri is one of four Lefort children who grew up on Baldwin Street. Cheri and her husband, Timothy, were married in 1980. They have three children, ages 25, 21, and 13.
Through Facebook, I got in touch with Cheri. She agreed to talk with me about living in Newtown, and about Newtown in the wake of the unspeakable. Cheri and I talked on the phone a week ago.
Cheri is a registered nurse who works in a community hospital outside New York City. Her husband is a successful corporate manager whose job has brought the family to various places across the U.S. before the family set up a home in Newtown.
“There is not a lot of commercialism here, not a lot of big name and major chains and all,” said Cheri. “It reminds me of Easton when I was a kid. And like Easton, Newtown has a lot of conservation land. And people here are very civic minded and care about community. It is a wonderful place to live."
Cheri takes care not to, in her discussions of the horrific event and its aftermath, insinuate herself or her family into the event. She and her family have lived in Newtown for more than 10 years, but she understands that her and her family's connection, and any pain it feels in response to the murder of the innocents, is far outside of that and infinitely beyond the feeling of the loss and agony that so many others know intimately.
She does though have many close friends in Sandy Hook. Her and her husband's youngest child attends Middle Gate Elementary School, one of two elementary schools in Newtown.
“There is a road that bisects the community; it is Berkshire Road/Route 34,” said Cheri. “Kids on one side of the road go to Sandy Hook, the children on the other side go to Middle Gate.”
Cheri knows the sister of Anne Marie Murphy, 52, a special ed teacher and mother of four who was killed while trying to protect her student, Adam Hockley, 6, who also died. Murphy was found with Hockley cradled in her arms.
Cheri (Lefort) Gillespie has volunteered in the community, including at Middle Gate Elementary School.
“That morning, Friday, I was following up a day when I worked a double shift, 16 hours, at the hospital,” said Cheri. “I returned from work at one in the morning, and went to bed, and then was up at 6:30 to get help get my son ready for school. Later that morning I saw on Facebook that someone had been shot in the foot at a school in Newtown. Then there was news about maybe an irate parent shooting a teacher in the foot at a school in town.
"Soon enough, Sandy Hook Elementary School was named in a posting, and that a child had been shot and rushed to the hospital. And I was thinking that this is awful, and this can't happen in Newtown.”
Cheri said that more information was coming through various communication channels.
“Then I received news that all the schools in Newtown were on lockdown – not just Sandy Hook. Then more news. Just terrible; we were learning the true extent of what happened. Of course, I was worried about my son. But we weren't receiving phone calls. What was happening though in the schools, of course, now that the kids have phones, is that they were getting the news as well of this awful event. But the students had to stay put.”
It wasn't until 1 p.m. that Cheri got the word that her son was fine.
“When the information got out that the shooter was Ryan Lanza from Newtown, and that he was 24, I called my older daughter who lives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She went to Newtown High School, and it seems she would have known Ryan Lanza since they were basically the same age. When I told her the shooter was Ryan Lanza, she was beside herself, and terribly upset; she said she knew Ryan personally, and that he was a good kid, and that he couldn't have done it. She told me that I had even given Ryan a ride occasionally when she hung around with him in high school. And, when she described Ryan a little more, I remembered him – and, yes, he was a good kid, a really nice kid.”
Soon after Cheri got off the phone with her daughter, her daughter called back and told her mom that Ryan Lanza had posted to Facebook while he was on a train coming out of New York City, informing people where he was and that he had was not the shooter.
Cheri (Lefort) Gillespie does not remember ever meeting the mother or father of Adam Lanza, or Adam Lanza himself. Lanza's mother, Nancy, was the first to die that day when her son shot her inside the family home.
Cheri's younger daughter, a year older than the shooter, gave her mother a description and remembrance of Adam Lanza that has been often told – that of an odd type.
“It has been just devastating, the feeling around here,” said Cheri. “The night of the day of the shooting, the Catholic church our family attends in Newtown held a vigil, and there were 2000 people there, inside and outside. People together, so many knowing one another, and so many having this direct connection to families who had lost loved ones.
“It is everywhere - the reminder of the loss. I can't imagine what the people are going through who lost someone in their family. We only have one funeral home in town, and I was driving near it the other day, and there was a funeral for one of the children victims, and the police were out, and there was a shuttle service transporting mourners and those paying their respects.”
The funeral home to which Cheri referred is Honan Funeral Home. It provided services to 11 families whose children perished on the morning of Dec. 14.
“And the memorials are in so many places, and they have grown,” said Cheri. “People from all over the world sent things in memorial; there was the woman from Oregon who sent the 26 wreaths, and the 26 Christmas trees a donor sent from North Carolina; people bringing flowers and stuffed animals.”
Cheri (Lefort) Gillespie says that the tremendous amount of loe and caring sent to Newtown and its people lifts hearts and spirits amid the most terrible hurt.
“Again, from around the world people are sending things. Someone gave $1,000 to coffee shops in town so that free coffee and other refreshments could be given to those who could use them. I was walking along the street, and a woman from Greenwich pulled up in her car and handed me roses. It got to a point that so many toys and stuffed animals and other items were being sent that a public statement was made not to send any more. The local professional hockey team offered free tickets to any Newtown resident for a series of home games.”
The hockey team that Cheri mentioned is the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL New York Islanders.
As well, starting on Dec. 22, for every Tigers home game, each Bridgeport player will have, in place of his own last name on the back of his jersey, the name of one of the 20 children lost on Dec. 14. The Bridgeport Sound Tigers will remember the six adult Sandy Hook Elementary school personnel who died by placing their names on the digital scoreboard throughout the home games.
As a parent, a health professional, and a resident of Newtown, Cheri (Lefort) Gillespie is deeply involved and interested in discussions of potential changes in laws and policies that would make society safer.
"We need to look at a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and also on how to improve mental health treatment, and make treatment more easily accessible for the mentally ill.".
But as of last week the emotion and the loss surrounding what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School predominated.
Cheri (Lefort) Gillespie reflected:
“I say it again; I can't imagine. There is that main road, Route 34, not far from where we live. And I remember one of the families who lived on that street, had a daughter, and when the daughter outgrew certain toys or play items, the family would generously place those toys and items out in front of the house, with a note attached saying that the items were free.
“That same little girl – that family's little girl – was one of the 20 children lost that day.”