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UMW helps freshman honor slain Newtown neighbors

BY PAMELA GOULD

University of Mary Washington freshman Liz Eiseman arrived home in Newtown, Conn., for her winter break on Dec. 13.

The next morning, she was eating breakfast with a friend at the Misty Vale Deli in the village of Sandy Hook when a squad car raced past.

“We saw the police cars going by and that made me jump a little because that doesn’t happen,” said Eiseman, 18.

“Nothing ever happens” in Sandy Hook, she said.

Eiseman and UMW classmate Kathryn Erwin were headed to Killington, Vt., for a UMW Ski and Snowboard Club trip after breakfast. But just before they left, they spoke to a neighbor who said there had been a shooting at the school.

As Eiseman and Erwin drove north, they sought additional information on their smartphones. Eiseman heard one person had been injured and figured it was a freak accident.

“And then suddenly it’s seven kids, eight kids,” she recalled.

She started texting friends she grew up with in the close-knit New England community. Then everyone started texting others in effort to account for family members.

“The first thing I did was text-message my brother,” Eiseman said.

Cameron Eiseman, a Newtown High School junior, thought they were in the midst of a drill.

Schools across Newtown turned on televisions as word spread of the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary where, when the shooting stopped, 20 children and six adults were dead.

Adam Lanza was two years ahead of Liz Eiseman at Newtown High School but she didn’t know the young man who forced his way into the elementary school armed for war. She did, however, know two of the victims.

She had babysat for 7-year-old Grace Audrey McDonnell.

And special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy was the mother of a field hockey teammate.

Eiseman’s time at home was consumed by somber reflections of loss and an enormous outpouring of support.

Main Street, which is lined with funeral homes and churches, stayed crowded as service after service after service was conducted.

Police from around the state pitched in to help with the flood of traffic from mourners, well-wishers and media.

Poster boards with the signatures of children from schools across the country appeared in waves. Teddy bears arrived from all corners.

And people, eager to show they cared in any way possible, made generous gestures such as paying for the day’s customers at the local Starbucks.

The community was so touched that Eiseman said people wanted to start paying it forward by engaging in acts of kindness themselves.

She is working on her own “26 Acts of Kindness,” a movement spawned by a tweet from NBC’s Ann Curry, who challenged everyone to do one act of kindness for each child killed. It then grew to include all 26 victims.

POSITIVE MEMORIES

Eiseman’s parents moved the family to Newtown when she was about 5 so she and her brother could attend the schools there.

She said that isn’t uncommon, with many parents commuting to nearby Danbury for work.

Liz Eiseman attended Sandy Hook Elementary. She spent kindergarten through fourth grade there before moving on to the intermediate school.

She has great memories of Sandy Hook.

It’s where her mother served as a substitute teacher, volunteered in the library and served in the PTA.

And it’s where Eiseman met the girls she calls her “12 best friends.”

It is with those friends—ones she grew up playing field hockey and lacrosse with—that she grieved over the past month.

The dozen girls, just months removed from their Newtown High School graduation, gathered after the shooting, encouraged to do so by a tweet from Principal Charles Dumais.

“NHS Alumni—Don’t allow isolation to creep in over break,” he wrote. “Please connect with our students and their families. Check on your neighbors.”

Eiseman attended the candlelight vigil in town. She watched the nationally televised service where President Obama and local ministers spoke.

And she watched as every adult in her life cried at some point.

She hopes Sandy Hook Elementary reopens one day so the Dec. 14 tragedy doesn’t serve as its final chapter.

It’s been tough having one of the worst school shootings in history being the thing that made Newtown known to the world.

“Before, people in Connecticut didn’t even know where Newtown is,” Eiseman said.

“It’s a shame, though, that it’s put on the map for this. I’ve got to tell you. If I had a family now, I definitely would take them back to Newtown to raise. Definitely.”

PAUSE TO REFLECT

As winter break was drawing to a close and Eiseman’s friends were heading back to their respective colleges, she reached out to Dave Pierandri, the UMW assistant dean of admissions who had recruited her. Eiseman wanted to honor the people who were killed, and she encourage UMW students to reflect.

She had heard of symbolic gestures being taken on other campuses and was hoping her college would do something, as well.

Pierandri, who grew up in neighboring Ridgefield, Conn., liked the idea and approached other administrators, including President Rick Hurley.

With students resuming classes on the one-month anniversary of the Newtown tragedy Monday, the timing seemed perfect.

The college raised a Connecticut flag over Lee Hall and Hurley sent a message to students and staff encouraging them to pause and reflect this week.

UMW freshman Maureen Iredell of Alexandria did just that Monday morning, stopping to photograph the flag with her iPhone.

“It’s something so bad that I think everyone should take time to remember it,” she said.

For Eiseman, the idea goes beyond the tragedy. She lost her mother to cancer in July 2011, but knew it was coming and had a chance to say good-bye.

The families of the children and educators killed inside Sandy Hook Elementary lost them without warning.

Eiseman also has beautiful memories of her childhood and opportunities still before her that those children will never have.

“Everybody,” she said, “needs to remember how lucky they are and what they have in life.”

FLAG FLYING

The state flag of Connecticut is flying in front of Lee Hall on the grounds of the University of Mary Washington this week.

The flag is flying to encourage students, staff and faculty to pause to honor those killed on Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and to reflect.

The Connecticut flag flies alongside the American flag. Normally, the eight flag poles on Lee Hall are used to recognize the foreign countries of students attending the school, said Dave Pierandri, assistant dean of admissions.

More than 30 students from Connecticut are currently enrolled at UMW, Pierandri said.

 

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