Rachel D'Avino

Rachel D'Avino, one of the victims of the Sandy Hill shooting. (Courtesy/Christine Carmody, Courtesy/Christine Carmody / December 16, 2012)

"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.