The kindness of strangers floods in to lighten Sandy Hook's darkness

A casual visitor to Newtown might not see any signs of what happened here a year ago, though if you know where to look they are there.

A casual visitor to Newtown might not see any signs of what happened here a year ago, though if you know where to look they are there.

By the highway near the town boundary an American flag hitched to a fence post glows in a spotlight after the sun goes down in the cold late afternoon.

Beneath it 26 smaller flags have been pressed into the earth, one for each life taken. In town a row of witch's hats block the driveway to the now-demolished Sandy Hook Elementary School on Church Hill Road. The vacant land is hidden by green-sheathed cyclone fencing.

Behind the tiny stone St John's Episcopal Church that borders the school, a sturdy granite memorial to the dead has a temporary home. It was donated to the town and nobody is yet quite sure where to put it permanently.

And in many of the shop windows you'll find banners that say in white on chalkboard green, "We Are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love."

For a time no one was quite sure where those signs had come from.

Sandy Hook, the little hamlet in Newtown, Connecticut, where on December 14 last year Adam Lanza murdered 20 primary-school children and six staff, will hold no public memorial to mark the anniversary this weekend, and it has made a plea that media and well-wishers stay away.

"This town has been split wide open for all the world and now it wants to reclaim some of its privacy," explains Monsignor Robert Weiss, pastor of the St Rose of Lima Catholic Church, a man known about town simply as Father Bob.

On the day of the shooting - referred to locally now simply as 12/14 - Father Bob was among the first to arrive at the volunteer firehouse where the survivors were gathered. He was there with the parents who clutched their children as they were marked off the roll and released into their arms, and with those who waited in vain.

"You could see them losing hope ... They were broken," he told Fairfax Media that night. These were people Father Bob knew well. He had baptised eight of the children who died that day. Later he would bury them.

When Fairfax Media visited this month Father Bob explained that the families of the dead are coping in different ways. "Everybody is in a different space right now. Some are just frozen in time, some have made great advances and are turning their grief around into other things."

He worries for the children who survived but listened and hid as their classmates died. Some have asked him, "If God is good, how could this happen?" He tells them, "Do you really think God's hand was in this? Was God's hand in the violent video games Adam [Lanza, the shooter] played? Did God give him the guns?"

But even as he struggles with his own grief and anger, he says the overwhelming reaction of the community has been one of quiet kindness. "For those of us who live here the goodness has increased 100-fold," he says. When he queues at the Starbucks next door to St Rose his coffee is invariably paid for by the time he reaches the cashier. "I have never been hugged by so many men in my life," he says.

Combing the pages of the local paper, the Newtown Bee, in the months after the killings another resident, Sharon Cohen, was so struck by the tide of charitable work being done in the names of the dead that she was moved to collate information on all the new groups into a book, Newtown: Moving Forward. A Community Faces the Future After Adversity.

Flicking through its pages is at once heart-warming and heartbreaking.

Following the murders, charities and funds were established to help the families of the dead pay for funeral expenses and counselling as they rebuilt their lives. Scholarships were created in the names of the staff members, most of whom died trying to save the children. Other groups were created to fund gun control lobbying and mental health intervention.

Many have been dedicated to the children themselves. Jesse Lewis, who was six years old, saw that Lanza's gun had jammed and yelled for his classmates to run. Six made it out, though he did not. His parents have established the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation to teach children to peacefully deal with anger.

Jessica Rekos, 6, loved horses and her fund supports riding as therapy. Emilie Parker, 6, loved art and her parents are raising money for community arts programs. Other groups supporting non-violence, kindness and victims of trauma were established in the names of Ana Marquez-Greene, Daniel Barden and Ben Wheeler, all of whom were six.

Cohen was not directly affected by the killings, though as she sits in a local diner discussing the book she often puts a finger to her eye to blot away a tear.

A pall remains over Newtown, she says. The streets seem quieter and the sound of sirens can still evoke horror in its citizens.

She believes the town was so traumatised by 12/14 that it had no choice but to turn to community service. "If you are religious, or even if you have a care for humanity and a belief that humanity is ultimately good, when something like this happens, you have to somehow get over the cognitive dissonance," she says.

"The world is now completely different to the way you thought it was.

"You can't just say people are evil, or God does not love us, you have to find a way to deal with it, and the way is to do something good for other people, you need to bring good into the world."

Tim Stan's two children, Eli and Katie, were at a nearby elementary school when the shooting happened. He remembers how that night he and his wife Julie sat with them at the dinner table and tried to explain to them what happened. They were emphatic only about one thing, that the gunman Lanza was dead and could not come back.

In the days that followed he found himself pondering some of Martin Luther King's most famous words: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Toying with the words, he came up with the slogan" We Are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love". He printed off a few dozen posters and began to distribute them to shops around town. The response was so overwhelming that he kept printing more and soon he saw that others were doing so too. After a few days he discovered that a company that owned billboards along the interstate had filled its vacant advertising spaces with the slogan.

It took a while for the Newtown Bee to seek him out. At first he was reluctant to do an interview. "But my wife said, this is about more than you now, people like this." We Are Sandy Hook has evolved into another charity, raising small amounts of money, but more concerned with fostering community through small acts of kindness. Like Cohen, Stan thinks Sandy Hook remains bowed and quieted by its grief but that it is a closer community than it once was.

He tells of a woman collapsing in tears while standing in a supermarket queue only to be gathered into the arms of the people around her. "There have been so many acts of human kindness." But he says the emphasis on community service has served another purpose.

"Newtown was being discussed as an event, not a place." Through community service, he says, Newtown is reclaiming its identity.

In the hours and days after 12/14 the community, led by Pat Llodra, the First Selectman - a position similar to that of a mayor - found itself having to make quick decisions under unimaginable circumstances. In the eyes of many Llodra, a 70-year-old former Newtown High principal with a calm but indomitable presence, did not put a foot wrong. She was recently re-elected unopposed.

As media and well-wishers choked the streets, police officers were allocated to each of the families directly affected by the shooting. Volunteers from neighbouring towns took up the slack in the small police force. Volunteer counsellors were also dispatched. It was decided that though the school could not be reopened after Christmas the children should not be separated, and soon volunteer contractors began work restoring a closed school in nearby Bethel. Quickly the Town Hall's resources were overwhelmed by a flood of condolence notes, gifts and donations from around the world. Determined that no note would go unread volunteers started reading and cataloguing them. Now they are being digitised.

About a month after the shooting, work began on dismantling the makeshift memorials around the town. All tributes were recorded and will eventually be used in a memorial. The matter is now known as "sacred soil". Warehouses full of donated toys were passed on to charities once the children of Newtown had their pick.

As time went on the decisions became more difficult. There was tension over the allocation of $7 millions in donations that the town received unsolicited - much of it without instructions on how the donor wanted it spent. A formula was finally settled on and the money distributed.

There have been divisions over what should be done with the school site. Some believe it should have been reoccupied as soon as possible in defiance of the horror that beset it. Others believed it should have become the site of the memorial.

Instead the structures were razed and a new school will be built. The decision has caused lingering pain to some. Tim Stan does not want to buy into the debate, but he admits it is not what he would have done on the site.

"I would have built the world's best playground there. I would have filled it with laughter."

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