A year ago, on the morning of Dec. 14, the news of the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., shocked and saddened people all over the country, as well as the world. Twenty children and six educators were killed when a gunman entered the secure school, walked into a classroom and began shooting.
Patti Smith, Great Bend, was putting the finishing touches on a tree skirt project as the news broke, and she remained glued to coverage of the incident as it unfolded, as did her friend, Sheila Smither. Both grandmothers of children the ages of the young victims, they would soon come together to collaborate on the project they hoped would help bring healing to the families of the victims.
Smith soon began designing the Christmas tree skirt that told a story of each of the young first-graders and the educators that gave their lives trying to protect them. As it took shape, Smith learned her husband was positive for cancer, and would need to undergo treatment in February. For months, she would work on the project after he retired for the night. It gave her a chance to pray, not only for her husband, but for each of the families of the victims, as she worked on each applique.
Made of felt, and adorned with multi-colored sequins and beads, seven teddy bear appliques make up the inner ring of the skirt. Each depicts a different activity or setting that represents a Christmas wish or interest of some of the children.
A football helmet, soccer ball and baseball surround one bear prepared to dunk a basketball, representing the sports and teams several of the boys enjoyed and liked.
Another bear, seated on a pencil and reading a book, represents the teachers. While some of the bios of the children were detailed, some simply stated how much they were loved and missed. For those children, Smith created the pink and white “lovey” bear holding a Valentine.
“I believe God gave each of us a talent to share with others,” Smith said. “This is the one talent I have.”
Even the placement of the names contains meaning. Two in particular, that of Anne, 52 and Dylan, 6, still bring tears to Smith’s eyes. Anne was an assistant in Dylan’s classroom, and loved by the young boy according to his parents. She had tried to shield him from the gunman. When they were found, his parents reported having found some comfort that he had died with someone he loved. Smith placed them side by side.
Smith took the skirt to Smither at Roth Embroidery in Great Bend to embroider each of the names of each of the victims around the edge. That’s when Smither became inspired, and created a block with each name embroidered in a different font, representing each individual personality. Smith was delighted with the effect, and was prepared to pay for her work when Smither told her she would not charge, as she too felt called to share her talent in this project.
Smith estimates she has put at least 150 hours into the project, and that doesn’t include the time given by Smither. Once the project was complete, she brought it to her church where her pastor blessed it.
Initially, she ran into difficulty finding a contact person she could send the gift to. She didn’t give up, however, and continued to pray.
Since the shooting, students have been attending school in a neighboring town. A school there had been closed the year before, and quickly students, faculty and staff in that town made the Sandy Hook students welcome, allowing them to begin to resume some semblance of normalcy.
According to a recent story in Vanity Fair magazine, “On October 5, Newtown voters approved a plan to demolish the existing Sandy Hook Elementary School and build a new school of the same name in its place.”
The town is beginning to heal. According to Fox Sports, the Newtown High football team has a 12-0 year. They dedicated the season to Sandy Hook, and sport the number 26 in green and white on their helmets. It’s proof that hope never dies.
Smith was surprised to learn this. She too included the number 26 on the uniform of the basketball playing bear. She also used the school colors green and white for the front banner under the angel bear.
Thanksgiving prayer answered
Over the holiday weekend, Smith showed the tree skirt to her son, Tyler Mermis, Marion Chief of Police. That’s when she shared with them her difficulty in finding someone to send the skirt to. But her son provided her with the answer to her prayer.
Recently, he attended a seminar where Redding, Con. Chief of Police Douglas Fuche spoke about how police can be better prepared for active shooter incidents. Fuche was one of the first responders to the Sandy Hook shooting.
Mermis urged his mom to contact him. After a few days, she gathered the courage to make the call.
“I was expecting another dead end,” she said. “Fuche was warm and pleasant.” As she poured out the story about the skirt, his interest increased. During their conversation, he found the recent story online in the Hutchinson newspaper which provided him a glimpse at the detail and extent of the project. He urged her to send the completed tree skirt to him and promised to find an appropriate place to publicly display it.
“The thing people tell me they really like about it is that all the bears are happy,” she said. “I hope it helps the families and friends to heal.”