By MATTHEW STURDEVANT, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
3:36 PM EST, December 22, 2012
Jim and Jason Pennington, two brothers from Austin, Texas, decided not to spend Christmas with family in Hawaii, as they do each year.
"We had a choice: Maui or Newtown," Jim Pennington said.
The shooting on Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook elementary that left 28 dead in Newtown, including 20 young children, compelled the Texan brothers to volunteer.
The brothers flew to Newark, N.J., and drove a rental car north. They arrived Thursday in Newtown without much of a plan, other than to help in whatever way they can. They are among at least dozens and maybe hundreds of people who have come to town to assist, to volunteer, to give gifts and to offer support.
"It's like this whole town is family," Jim Pennington said. "I won't feel this close to the Christmas spirit for a long time."
Newtown's town social services office has had phone calls all week from people across the country asking how they can help, said case worker Ann Benore.
One man drove from Chicago and donated thousands of stuffed animals. A shipment of 60,000 stuffed animals arrived from Arkansas. A youth group from Cleveland drove through a blizzard to hand out toys in front of Edmond Town Hall, which is a multi-purpose building on Main Street.
In the basement of Edmond Town Hall on Saturday, banquet tables overflowed with donated toys. Benore, the town social services case worker, said there were more in storage.
"We have thousands of teddy bears," she said.
The Pennington brothers were among volunteers who set up tables, and, on Friday, they unboxed toys and displayed them. On Friday night, they said they set up a dinner for 85 firefighters in town and washed the pots and pans afterward.
Also volunteering, Vinny Conwell of Big V's Bail Recovery in Patchogue, N.Y., brought SUVs full of toys and was helping set up tables with food for the children who were going to arrive that afternoon.
He said he was with his 4.5 year-old daughter last weekend when the weight of the tragedy spurred him to collect toys.
"I did a YouTube video, and we blasted it all over Facebook ... We came up with $1,500 worth of gifts in two full-sized Suburbans," Conwell said.
He is involved with a wrestling entertainment group, Warriors of Wrestling. He would like to put on a wrestling event in the spring to raise money for the surviving Sandy Hook children.
Outside Edmond Town Hall, Carlos Lopez of Norwalk had erected the trunk of a cedar tree, stripped of its bark and branches. Several men were drilling holes into it.
He had a vision of a "peace tree," stripped of its life by tragedy, but regrowing at the hands of all community members. People were decorating sticks with yarn and ribbon, and sticking them in drilled holes in the tree to symbolize regrowth.
When asked if he is an artist, Lopez laughed.
"No. I'm in landscaping," he said. "I came up with this idea so we can grow the peace back."
Near to Lopez's "peace tree," about 30 people from Victory Center for Youth arrived from Cleveland, Ohio, after an overnight bus trip through a blizzard.
"We drove straight through the night," said David Cottingham, an adult with the youth group.
Another adult leader, Natasha Watts, said the youth group had collected toys for Newtown children and they were writing cards and notes to the families of those killed in the shooting.
Mario Hauser, another member of the Cleveland group, said he has two daughters 8 and 9.
"I couldn't imagine getting that phone call," Hauser said.
Cottingham added, "this type of tragedy affects the world ... It's about letting someone know someone cares ... Even when these crowds start to dwindle, and they will dwindle, we are all family."
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