NEWTOWN, Conn. — There are the balloons that suddenly appear everywhere on children's birthdays — red for Avielle, green for Ben, Mylar ducks for Jesse. There are the young voices raised in song, the teenagers returning to Friday night football games, the number 26 peeking out from doorways and shop windows, a father's sax solo in memory of his spirited Ana.
A year later, a year after the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary, this is a town that has learned to live again.
Here, the mothers and fathers who lost their children on that December morning have somehow found something left inside themselves to give.
Many have started foundations in the names of their kids. The purposes are as diverse as the first-graders themselves. They aim to help animals, to improve autism education, to advocate for the arts, to study connections between mental illness and violence, to promote kindness, and much more.
"Doing something for somebody else is so healing, and that's what I feel like I'm doing with my foundation," said Scarlett Lewis, who created the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation in memory of her 6-year-old.
The desire to help others isn't unusual after great loss, but Newtown's affluence and sense of community amplify the effectiveness. In this town 75 miles from New York City, parents are scientists, educators, family therapists and company executives who have the work experience and wherewithal to see big plans through.
"It's absolutely stunning to me, the breadth of the funds and foundations created to focus on making change and making society a better, safer place for all people," said E. Patricia Llodra, the town's top public official. "We're not going to be known as a place where this horrible thing happened; we're going to be known as a place where a horrible thing happened that was turned into some great thing. … We are intentionally moving toward goodness."
David Wheeler, father of Ben, put it more simply: "We have to make a world we can live in."
Jesse Lewis was a human juxtaposition in a 71-pound body. He was a rambunctious boy who gusted into rooms like a hurricane then settled himself into a quiet corner to read books about birding. In summer, he would fill one pocket with delicate shells he collected on Long Island Sound and the other with found wine corks, which he called "corkles."
He loved yellow rubber ducks as much as his green Army men he carried around in a Spider-Man lunch box. At bath time, he would line them up around the rim of the tub, fierce warriors and gentle birds in formation.
"He had those two parts to his personality — very sweet and cuddly and loving but also tough like a little soldier," said his mother, Scarlett Lewis, a former bond trader now running a small farm, who is a bit of a juxtaposition herself.
He would put on a green helmet and camouflage snow boots — no matter the weather — and cast a long shadow as he patrolled the perimeter of his family's farm. Then at night he would crawl into bed next to his Mama, a wee boy seeking comfort and a bedtime story.
After Jesse was killed, Ms. Lewis couldn't bear to be in her own house. She stayed away for weeks except to gather clothes for her son's funeral. She returned for good only after family friends promised to clear out the toys, the boots, the lunch box, the crayon drawings of Star Wars figures, the school papers, the toothbrush — every trace of Jesse. Only then, she thought, could she come home.
"I didn't want to walk in that door and have his boots and have his coat and all of his stuff around. I can't have that," she remembers thinking.
That changed the moment she returned and felt an overwhelming emptiness that she has since filled from floor to ceiling with everything Jesse loved.
"Now I want him all over and — you can see — he is all over and he will always be all over," she said. "You change your mind."
His backpack now hangs from a bookshelf and his little ducks line the fireplace mantle. Covering the living room walls are paintings of Jesse and his 13-year-old brother, J.T. — some painted by their mother, and the rest mailed from around the world by strangers who also sent hundreds of thousands of cards, letters, teddy bears, handmade quilts and prayer shawls.
Now she and J.T. are on a mission to return that kind of compassion to the world through words and actions inspired by three words — "norurting, heling, love" — Jesse scrawled on a chalkboard in the farmhouse kitchen in the days before he died.
That is: Nurturing, healing, love. Those aren't part of a typical first-grader vernacular and not something Ms. Lewis remembers saying around the house.
"It's like not of this world. He wrote that — it is my belief — because, spiritually, he had a knowing of the fact he wasn't going to be around very much longer and he wanted to leave that message of comfort. I knew it was a message of inspiration for the world," Ms. Lewis said.
And so it became the core of her mission and the title of her book published in October to honor her son's memory.
"I may not have known what my purpose was before … and now I feel like I am 100 percent sure and I feel very blessed about that. My purpose is to spread Jesse's chalkboard message of nurturing, healing love," she said.
"I wrote it because I felt like the nation went through this with me and I wanted to give back and to tell people how I was, what I've learned, and to share these incredible miraculous messages that Jesse has given me."
All proceeds from book sales are going to the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, which is developing school-based education programs to transform the culture of violence into one of safety.
Part of its mission is to ask people to change one angry thought every day into a compassionate one.
"In doing so you'll make yourself happier, you'll make those around you happier and — through the ripple effect — you'll make the world a more peaceful place," Ms. Lewis said. "This whole tragedy began with an angry thought, and an angry thought can be changed."
She's finding room even to forgive the killer, Adam Lanza, and his mother, Nancy. Lanza, 20, murdered his 52-year-old mother at their Newtown home before heading to the school that day where he killed 26 others then took his own life. But few in town see Mrs. Lanza as a victim. Many blame her for keeping guns in a home she shared with a son known to be troubled.
"As a single mom, I feel compassion for her, however the choices she made were not loving," Ms. Lewis said. "I want to be in judgment of no one, and I don't know the whole story, but her mistakes led to something very tragic."
Still, Ms. Lewis made sure to place 28 ceramic stars around her son's grave at Zoar Ridge Cemetery, not 26 like so many other memorials around town.
Jesse's brother J.T. also has a mission. His began the night several Rwandan genocide survivors and their translator reached out from 7,000 miles away. In a video conversation over Skype, they told J.T. they had experienced tremendous and violent loss, too, but managed to move forward. One had sent himself to college and others said they longed to do the same.
That conversation gave J.T. a purpose. He began writing his plan that night in his journal. People around the world had been asking how they could help J.T. Now he knew what to tell them.
Within weeks he and two friends had raised $1,600 — enough to pay for a year of college in Rwanda.
Via Skype, J.T. delivered the news himself to the 27-year-old recipient, a woman who had been orphaned at age 7. She clutched her face and cried when an interpreter told her of the gift, and J.T. looked happier than his mother had seen him since the shooting.
"He started healing that day," Ms. Lewis said. "Being in service to somebody — doing something for somebody else — that's really the meaning, to me, of choosing love."