The stack of photographs, nearly a foot high, captures Rachel D'Avino in all her buoyant glory.
There she is, dark hair and broad smile, striking a silly pose in dress-up clothes, or thrusting her arm around her cousin, her big personality shining through every snapshot.
"She always stood out," recalled her aunt, Christine Carmody. "She had the neatest sense of humor and would come up with the funnest stuff. She did everything to the max."
Like the elaborate cakes she loved to bake for her friends and for her boyfriend, Tony Cerritelli, and the toga parties and ugly-sweater parties she used to organize.
D'Avino was a hugger with a flair for drama. As a kid, she would act out scenes from movies. Her passions were karate, photography and her menagerie of animals — she was drawn to dogs, frogs, bunnies, birds or anything else with scales, feathers or fur.
But behind the exuberance was unrelenting determination and a clear focus. D'Avino struggled with a learning disability in childhood, but she overcame it, said her aunt, and went on to earn advanced degrees. "She was very goal-oriented,'' Carmody said. "If she said she was going to do something, it would get done. She got a lot of her drive from her mom.''
D'Avino was a behavioral therapist; she worked with children on the autism spectrum. "It wasn't just a job,'' Carmody said. "It was her life."
At 29, and close to completing her education, D'Avino had recently landed a temporary job at Sandy Hook Elementary School, about a half-hour's drive from her home in Bethlehem. She was supposed to start in early December, but she fell ill with the flu, Carmody said, so her start date was pushed back to Wednesday, Dec. 12.
That night, D'Avino and her fiancé went to their friend Lia Greenley's house in New Britain. They decided to make a time capsule because, "well, it was 12-12-12 and it was a nerdy thing to do," Greenley said.
D'Avino wrote a note to future Americans. It read, in part, "it is my DREAM that you know my name as a leader in behavior analysis for children and adults with autism. However, I will be thrilled if I make a few people have an easier, more enjoyable life."
She signed the message Rachel Marie D'Avino, MS.
Two days later, a gunman shot his way into the school, killing her and five other educators, along with 20 children. D'Avino was so new that her name did not appear on any official school rosters.
Doing What She Was Meant To Do
D'Avino was born in Waterbury. Her mother, Mary, was one of 10 children from a large Irish-American family. Her father, Ralph, was Italian, and she felt a strong pull toward his heritage.
Even as a child, her aunt said, Rachel had a habit of talking with her hands. An accomplished cook, she loved making tomato sauce with her Italian grandmother. "She always identified as Italian until St. Patrick's Day. Then the Irish part was talked about,'' said Carmody, who has been informally designated the family spokeswoman.
D'Avino attended St. Margaret's-McTernan School in Waterbury, where her kindergarten teacher, Marion Rose Bouffard, remembered her as "a wonderful little girl, very warm and very gentle."
Bouffard said she was not surprised that D'Avino became a teacher. "She was a very giving little girl,'' she said.
Even though she hadn't seen D'Avino in almost 25 years, Bouffard was heartbroken when she realized that one of her former students was among those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. "When you're a teacher," Bouffard said, "those kids are your kids forever."
That's a sentiment that D'Avino understood. Her job working with autistic children was a demanding one, but it didn't end when the bell rang and classes were over. D'Avino was known for visiting her pupils after school and on weekends, pulling out all the stops to reach children for whom emotional connections don't come easy.
Lissa Lovetere Stone met D'Avino about six years ago; the circumstances were less than optimal. Lovetere Stone's son, 3 at the time, had just been diagnosed with autism and he was assigned a young aide who only recently had graduated from college.
"We were brand new to autism and I walked into the school with Andrew and he's having a fit," Lovetere Stone recalled. "He's so uncomfortable and everyone's looking at him and I'm dying on the inside."
D'Avino, the ink on her psychology degree from the University of Hartford barely dry, approached the boy. "She just had this huge smile on her face,'' Lovetere Stone said. D'Avino waited patiently for Lovetere Stone's son to grow accustomed to his surroundings and, eventually, he did.
The encounter was the beginning of a close bond between D'Avino and Lovetere Stone's family. Long after the school day was over, and long after D'Avino had moved on to other jobs, she would visit the boy. They would bake together or do a craft project, Lovetere Stone said.
The entire family grew to trust her. When Lovetere Stone and her husband needed a break, D'Avino would come over for the weekend to watch the kids and the dogs.
D'Avino's last visit to the Lovetere Stone house was around Halloween, when she came to decorate pumpkins with the kids. She spoke of returning during the Christmas break.
"She had a level of patience and understanding most of us do not possess,'' Lovetere Stone said. "It was something she was born with. Although she was never a mom herself, she taught me more about being a mom to a child with special needs than anyone else. She was just so comfortable with kids who weren't typical ... so calm and accepting of them."
'Stunning Young Professional'
From an early age, D'Avino had a vision. "She spoke about working with kids when she was a just a kid,'' Carmody said. "I remember her as a young teen saying she wanted to be a psychologist. She was probably 11 or 12 at the time."
D'Avino and her two younger sisters, Sarah and Hannah, grew up in rural Bethlehem, a town of about 3,000 nestled in the foothills of Litchfield County.
She graduated from Nonnewaug High School in 2001 and enrolled at the University of Hartford, where she earned a bachelor's degree, and Post University, where she received her master's. At the time of her death, D'Avino was living at home in Bethlehem and had completed all her course work for a graduate certificate in applied behavioral analysis from the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford.
D'Avino "was remarkable, energetic, and engaging,'' Deirdre Fitzgerald, associate professor of behavioral science and psychology at the University of St. Joseph, said in an email sent to the campus community. "She was a leading force. … She just sparkled with ideas and potential. Rachel was a stunning young professional. We, and the world, will feel her loss."
Just two weeks before her death, D'Avino posted on Facebook that she was finally done with school. "About 10 of us wrote her and said, 'Yeah, yeah, we've heard that before,''' Lovetere Stone said. "She was always trying to learn more and be better at what she did."
Yet there was a sense that D'Avino was on the cusp of a new chapter. In addition to finishing the requirements for her graduate certificate, she was looking toward the future with her boyfriend. Cerritelli was planning to propose on Christmas Eve.
Instead, the wedding ring he had planned to present to her, a ring that had belonged to D'Avino's grandmother, was placed on her finger before she was buried.
On Christmas Day, instead of celebrating her engagement, D'Avino's family acknowledged her absence from the dinner table by placing a sock monkey in her chair and a photograph of her on her empty plate.