Hearts And Wallets Open For Sandy Hook

Candles, stuffed animals and other items are seen at a makeshift memorial for victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown. (ERIC THAYER | Reuters)

Newtown's Brian Mauriello didn't just want to cry, he wanted to do something. He was so grateful his elementary-school-age son was safe that he established the Newtown Memorial Fund.

"At Friday at 4 o'clock I was the only fund out there," he said, "and that's why I did it."

He's been stunned by what followed. He said as extreme as the violence was that destroyed Sandy Hook's serenity, the public's response has been just as strong.

Rob Accomando, whose son was in a wrestling club with Jack Pinto and attends Sandy Hook Elementary School, had the same idea and started 'My Sandy Hook Family Fund' on Sunday.

He and other parents he knows have sprung into action in the spirit of an Amish barn raising.

"We dispatch teams of volunteers, folks who live here in the community, we jump in our Hondas and minivans," he said. They've gone to one house to clear away all the napkins and cups after the wake.

While much of the media coverage has focused on the affluence of the town — and some of the parents touched by the tragedy are well-off — the fund aims to help parents with emergency costs now.

"Some of the folks that have been affected are basically paycheck to paycheck," said Accomando, who owns a home-based recruiting business.

All of those who have established charitable funds for Newtown have been amazed by the swiftness and volume of donations, even those with long experience in nonprofit fundraising.

At Accomando's fund, more than $396,000 had been donated by 6 p.m. Thursday.

None of the money has been distributed yet, but Accomando said the money could pay for funeral costs, for the cost of flights and hotel costs for far-flung relatives, or to cover a mortgage during a prolonged bereavement leave.

Because it's not a certified charity yet, it's not clear if the donations will be tax deductible, but Pullman & Comley is working with them to explore how it can be structured and administered.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said of brand new charities like these: "They're not going to be on Charity Navigator, you're not going to know they're reliable for sure like an United Way. If you've decided that you want to give to one of these closer to the ground efforts, you should still do some due diligence to be sure they are legitimate."

Mauriello initially thought he would send some money to immediate needs, some to erect a memorial, and perhaps other money for long-term needs. But since Accomando has collected so much, he's pivoted to paying for the memorial and establishing an annual full-ride college scholarship for a local student whose parents can't afford to pay.

Mauriello said late Thursday afternoon that there had been $136,865 donated online and 90 pieces of unopened mail from 24 states. It's all coming in $25, $50 and $100 increments.

"People have stepped forward with this genuine sense of wanting to help us heal," he said. "That outpouring is just … I never would've expected it from so many different types of people, so many walks of life, and from so many places in the world."

He heard from a group of bicyclists in New Zealand that is doing a fundraising ride with 300 riders, and they'll go a kilometer for every rider that joins, collecting pledges based on the distance they ride.

Overnight on Tuesday, 600 emails landed in the in-box of newtownmemorialfund.org. Almost 40 percent of the donations came just in the last 24 hours.

"I thought I was going to drown in this, I was almost starting to write that letter of defeat before the board came together," Mauriello said. A teacher, a selectman, an attorney, a police officer, an accountant, nonprofit administrators — all who live or work in Newtown — have come forward to help him manage the load.

Jepsen said their participation is a reasonable sign that the charity is legitimate. "That's the kind of due diligence you want to find out, who's on the board."