NEWTOWN — Confounded with grief in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, Yolie Moreno sat in the cold outside the town's most popular diner off busy I-84 holding a sign she said bore an important message.
"I am love. I am Newtown. Just send love."
And they did, by the truckload.
People from throughout the world mailed hundreds of thousands of letters, cards, banners and gifts encouraging stricken Newtown to smile, stay strong and hope.
For months after the tragedy, the messages — sent to Sandy Hook Elementary School, town hall, various foundations and the town post offices — kept coming.
The mailings eventually filled four cargo trucks.
Some of the mailings went to those directly affected by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Volunteers, their emotions still raw in the weeks after the tragedy, read through the rest, fighting tears as they continually sorted the items and also tried to answer some of the correspondence.
But the boxes of mail kept coming.
Overwhelmed by the widespread support about a month into their grief, some thought it was time to start throwing things away. Others believed that these expressions should be part of the town's legacy, a bright spot in Newtown's darkest day.
"I was like, 'This is unbelievable,'" Moreno said. "I thought, 'What is going to happen to all of this?'"
Was there a way to gently manage this outpouring, to marshall the raw power of these gestures?
So a diverse group of Newtown residents — librarians, historians, homemakers — banded together and began a documentation project. The idea was to preserve the material — all of the letters and a thoughtful sampling of the objects and gifts — so that generations could experience the world's reaction to the Sandy Hook tragedy the way Newtown did.
Day after day, for hours and hours, volunteers would take trays of correspondence, read through the sentiments and photograph them. There were piles and piles of construction-paper cards sent from children just learning to write and multiple-page letters from elderly grandparents with a gift for finding just the right words of encouragement.
"There were so many messages that just said the simple things, like 'I care,' and "I love you.' People really wanted to help," Moreno said. "This project was about helping people in their grief. The stuff we picked out was so beautiful. It helps because people just really know how to nail it, sometimes they knew exactly what to say."
Taylor, a sixth-grader from Buffalo Grove, Ill., wrote, "Every part of my heart goes to you."
One child wrote, "You were just like me. I am 6 years old an [sic] I am in the first grade. I live in Montana."
Brady Gaston of Erie, Pa., wrote that his grandfather died shortly before the tragedy and was now in heaven "opening his arms" and giving those lost at Sandy Hook "all big hugs."
Moreno said she wishes there was a way to write back to each and every person who reached out. She is hoping the project helps to do that. Her work, she said, was about "bearing witness and saying, 'We got your letters.'"
Many well-wishers can see their letters on the project's website, embracingnewtown.com, which was launched Tuesday. Photojournalists were also recruited for the project to document the material, which was later digitally scanned to be part of the website.
"We just spent time creating this space of love," Moreno said. "Because there was room for nothing else."
People like Moreno, former reference librarian Andrea Zimmermann, town historian Daniel Cruson and a score of other volunteers were motivated by the rightness of this project, the undeniable value of preserving the world's reaction to a nearly unspeakable tragedy.
They learned on the fly about creating an archive of an exceedingly emotional and frightening event. This was Newtown's worst day.
The group enlisted the help of such professional conservationists and archivists as Kathleen Craughwell-Varda of the Connecticut State Library and Tamara Kennelly of Virginia Tech University.
"I nearly cried when I talked to Tamara on the phone,'' Zimmermann said. "It was such a relief to talk to someone so reassuring, who understood how difficult it was to work with that material. 'OK,' I said to myself. 'I can do this.'"
Kennelly and Craughwell-Varda helped with the protocols and guidelines of an authentic archive. Companies such as Xerox and Gaylord Bros. provided technical help and supplies. A group visiting Newtown from Columbine gave advice on how to manage the outpouring of letters and gifts.
Kennelly would check in periodically by email, reminding the restoration team to keep tabs on their own emotional well-being as they worked, which the Virginia Tech community had to do after the mass shooting there in April 2007, Zimmermann said.
Zimmermann and Cruson knew instinctively that the letters archive should include the small fraction of negative letters — religious rants, conspiracy theories, bizarre claims — that the Library of Congress would term "distasteful material.'' Understandably, much of it was thrown out by the volunteer sorters early on, but Zimmermann and Cruson were able to preserve a representative sample.
"Not everything was positive and supportive by any means," Cruson said. "Some of it was absolutely raunchy."
Cruson has written books about Newtown's history, including the recent, "Legendary Locals of Newtown," published last spring.
"The conspiracy theorists, we expected to get a lot from them," Cruson said. "It turns out a lot of them were evangelicals, saying things like, 'You had broken God's laws, so this is your punishment.'"
Cruson said "a good number" of the negative letters were disposed of until they realized the bad needed to be with the good to tell the complete story.
Zimmermann likened these sour notes to the Holocaust denial material included in any comprehensive archive of the Holocaust.
Cruson said it was important to preserve the whole experience.
"We finally turned around and said, 'Wait a minute, this is as much a part of the scene afterwards. The thought was if somebody wants to come back and study the consequences of this incident, the response, that material, will be available."
Initially, all of the correspondence was stored in trays on long tables that lined the hallways of the town's municipal center. Some of the artwork was later taken to another location and the rest was taken to the volunteer center. When the volunteer center closed, a storage pod with mail that had yet to be read and documented was moved to Moreno's home in Newtown.
Moreno, 45, a homemaker with a 10-year-old daughter, spent most of her summer photographing the items in a barn on her property.
Cruson admits he was skeptical at first about the project. He said the volunteers, particularly Moreno stepping forward, helped the town save and document more correspondence than it ever expected to.
Moreno said the volunteers read every single letter. They are selective about what to keep in the archives. So far, Moreno said, she alone took about 15,000 photographs.
"We amassed a collection that's a represention of the entire collection," she said.
In October, the volunteers took some letters and mostly unsalvageable items they decided not to keep to a solid-waste incinerator in Bridgeport. Item after item was placed into the furnace. Nothing — not even the weather-worn teddy bears or burned-out candles from roadside memorials — was thrown away.
The volunteers were left with a box of ash that will someday be mixed with soil or concrete and used as something sacred at the site of a memorial. Moreno, nodding to how important each and every gesture made to Newtown was, said the items were cremated, not incinerated.
Moreno admits that the work at times leaves her emotionally worn. But she said it is truly a labor of love.
"A lot of people asked me, 'How are you doing this?" she said.
"Emotionally, it is really hard because now I am close to the families. Yet it is joyful for me to see this, knowing I spent time helping create this space of love."