Bluffton man, students honor Sandy Hook victims with acts of kindness

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comDecember 13, 2013 

  • The victims

    The Dec. 14, 2012, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn, claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults.

    • The children: Charlotte Bacon, 6; Daniel Barden, 7; Olivia Engel, 6; Josephine Gay, 7; Ana Marquez-Greene, 6; Dylan Hockley, 6; Madeleine Hsu, 6; Catherine Hubbard, 6; Chase Kowalski, 7; Jesse Lewis, 6; James Mattioli, 6; Grace McDonnell, 7; Emilie Parker, 6; Jack Pinto, 6; Noah Pozner, 6; Caroline Previdi, 6; Jessica Rekos, 6; Avielle Richman, 6; Benjamin Wheeler, 6; and Allison Wyatt, 6.

    • The adults: Mary Sherlach, 56; Victoria Soto, 27; Anne Marie Murphy, 52; Lauren Rousseau, 30; Dawn Hochsprung, 47; and Rachel Davino, 29.

Chase Kowalski loved to play outside, as most 7-year-olds do.

He could often be found riding his bicycle or playing catch in the backyard. He completed his first triathlon at age 6 and ran in many community road races.

His family has called him a fun-loving, energetic boy with "a true love of life."

And it was a life that ended too soon. Chase was one of 20 children and six adults who died in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a year ago today.

To honor those victims, a Bluffton man who once lived in Newtown is completing 26 acts of kindness -- one for each victim. His idea has spread to Red Cedar Elementary School, where the Kindness Club is completing some acts of its own.

Most of the acts have been carried out with a specific person in mind, based something the victim loved to do.

That is why in remembrance and honor of Chase, the man, who wishes to stay anonymous, decided to sponsor a contestant in a triathlon in Augusta, Ga.

"That was an easy one -- for Chase," he said.

THE TRAGEDY

The man and his family lived in Newtown for 34 years. His children grew up there and went to school down the street.

The family was at Mass, less than a mile away from Sandy Hook Elementary School, on Dec. 14, 2012. Near the end, the priest stepped to the pulpit and announced that the service was over, that the school was going into lockdown and that the adults should leave.

"You know what happened that day," the man said.

On that day, Adam Lanza, 20, entered the school and shot and killed 26 people before taking his own life.

The man and his wife remained in Newtown until early January. They were close friends with some of the victims' family members.

We stayed "and tried to deal with the mayhem and distress that ensued," he said. "The days that followed were gut-wrenching for all of Newtown."

ACTS OF KINDNESS

The man and his wife had often traveled to the Beaufort County area and permanently moved to Bluffton at the beginning of the year.

As the one-year anniversary of the shootings approached, he began to think about what he could do to honor the victims.

"I don't know what triggered me to do my own 26 acts of kindness," he said. It just kind of happened.

His first was at his local barber shop, where he gave his barber an extra tip. His second act was paying for the dry cleaning for a woman who was a parishioner at his church in Newtown.

With each act, he gave the recipient an envelope with a victim's name on it. Inside each was an explanation and information about the person the act was intended to honor.

When he started, the acts weren't fitted to a specific person.

But when he was on No. 10, he got stuck. That is when he enlisted the help of Red Cedar Elementary School and the Kindness Club.

SPREADING THE HAPPINESS

The students and teachers at Red Cedar Elementary sparked the idea to do something special for each victim. The first idea they came up with was for 6-year-old Catherine Hubbard, who loved animals and always asked for a pet for Christmas.

The students in the school's Kindness Club collected cat and dog toys and donated them to the Palmetto Animal League. They also volunteered time to play with the animals, club adviser Audrey Kaney said.

Then, on Thursday, the club and school choir, as well as other students who wanted to be a part of the acts, went to Bloom retirement community in Bluffton to sing carols. This was in memory of 6-year-old Ana Marquez-Greene, who loved to sing.

The club has several more acts planned that it will complete in coming weeks.

"The ideas were coming hot and heavy from Red Cedar, and the Kindness Club took off on their own acts as well," the man said. "It was exhilarating, heartwarming and often tear-jerking."

Kaney said it was difficult explaining what had happened at Sandy Hook to the Red Cedar students. But as soon as she said that children had died, they couldn't wait to help.

"They were all in and were able to connect with the kids and their stories as they learned more about them," Kaney said. "The students recognized that it was a very sad thing, and they wanted to do things for them."

The man's last act is planned for Saturday -- the one year anniversary. He has prepaid for a few trips to the top of the Harbour Town Lighthouse for whoever visit that day, in honor of 6-year-old Benjamin Wheeler, who loved lighthouses.

"I'm so grateful to the Kindness Club for making this a mission accomplished for me. However, I can't stop now," he said. "I can see that each act has brought some happiness to someone else."

Video: Act of kindness in honor of Newtown (1:26)

Students with Red Cedar Elementary School sing Christmas carols at Bluffton's Bloom on Dec. 13, 2013, a senior living retirement community in honor of one of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., who enjoyed singing. It was the year anniversary of the shooting at the school that killed 26 people, including 20 first-graders.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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