“We heard a loud bang and we thought that something fell. Then we heard another. Then we thought that was a gunshot,” says a first grader from Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
Sandy Hook is the site of the worst elementary school shooting in U.S. history.
Last December, before the holiday break, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way through the building fatally shooting 20 children and six teachers before he killed himself.
Among the survivors are a dozen first-graders from the two classrooms where the gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle.
While most Americans have moved on, focusing on dozens of other national and international issues that have come up since then, for some students the nightmares persist.
Teachers report a fire alarm or the sound of the intercom makes some young students feel anxious. In a nearby town, the Sandy Hook kids are attending school in another building where there are signs posted reminding people to “close doors softly.”
Now parents and teachers in Newtown are reaching across the country for help from a Seattle program that combines therapy and art.
“Everybody rushed to help the little kids,” says Steffanie Lorig, founder and executive director of Art with Heart. “What we found is that because all the attention was on the little kids, the teenagers are really the ones who are hurting the most right now.”
Lorig returned Sunday from a trip to Newtown.
“They’ve dealt with not just one blow – 26 of their townspeople gone – but there was a 13-year-old who committed suicide, and just last week an 18-year-old passed away from a long-term illness,” Lorig says.
“They’re dealing with a lot of loss and they’re old enough to understand what the adults are going through and what happened. Younger children may or may not know exactly what happened, but the teenagers are very keenly aware.”
Lorig estimates one out of five children who are victims of a trauma will need some kind of counseling for life.
“If you never talk about or express what’s inside your heart, that means you’re holding it. That means you’re carrying it around with you. A lifetime is a really long time to be carrying around trauma,” she says. “A lot of people don’t express it because they’re told, ‘It’s okay. It’ll pass. Don’t, don’t bring it up again.'”
Art with Heart uses research-based therapy to get children to open up, either by drawing in workbooks with a specific prompt, or through creating their own art.
“Anxiety comes out behaviorally if it doesn’t come out in another way,” she says. “Being able to express it in a positive way, even if that art is negative, it’s no longer inside of them. They can externalize it. They can look at it. They can distance themselves from it and they get it outside of themselves.”
The Newtown community has provided financial help so students can get counseling.
The families of the 12 surviving children who witnessed the shootings each received $20,000 from the largest Newtown charity fund. The families of the 26 people who were killed each received $281,000.
“This has really shaken their core. What we’re trying to do is not just rush in, do a nice little ‘woo woo’ thing and rush out,” Lorig says. “We’re equipping the adults how to use creative expression with kids. We’re teaching them how to use art therapy books and tools.”
As a way to continue healing, residents of Newtown voted Saturday to raze and rebuild the Sandy Hook Elementary building.
Connecticut lawmakers earmarked $50 million in grant money to pay for the destruction of the current school and rebuilding the new school without impacting local taxes.
By LINDA THOMAS
Art with Heart is holding a benefit luncheon October 24, 2013. Event information here.