By DAVE ALTIMARI, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
3:57 PM EDT, March 25, 2013
In the three months following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, people around the world have raised more than $15 million, spread out over more than 60 funds.
The cash dwarfs fundraising totals that followed last year's movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colo., where about $5 million was raised, and the Virginia Tech shootings, where more than $8 million was donated.
But the flood of money has authorities concerned about whether there are enough controls in place to ensure that it is properly used.
"There is a lot of money out there coming from a lot of places,'' said William Rubenstein, commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection. "Keeping track of all that is virtually impossible.''
Rubenstein said there has been no evidence of scams or complaints from people who lost money. But there is no complete accounting as to how much money has been distributed and for what purposes.
Organizations are supposed to register as charities with the consumer protection agency if they plan to collect money in Connecticut. Since Dec. 14, at least 13 have registered, according to state records. Many more have been established. The town of Newtown's website alone lists 41 organizations that are collecting money. Some are funds set up by victims' families and are not included in The Courant's $15 million estimate.
The largest fund was established through the United Way and contains $10 million, at least a portion of which will be given to the families. A committee has been formed to oversee that fund.
The fundraising has taken various forms, with instances of significant overlap. There are at least 10 bracelets being sold, with phrases such as "Never Forget Sandy Hook," "Angels of Sandy Hook" and "Remember Newtown." Three different groups are using a variation of the name "We Are Newtown."
Individuals are selling T-shirts, running races, creating songs, making bumper stickers and pledging engraved pink granite benches. The New York Giants donated all the money coaches collected in fines from players last season.
A housewife in Missouri raised $7,700 selling bracelets, and a local Sandy Hook couple raised so much money Rubenstein paid a personal visit to explain the tax ramifications of handing cash to people and nationally known groups such as the Rotary Club, which has raised $700,000.
Funds have been established to provide financial aid to victim's families, to build memorials and fund scholarships.
"Disasters and tragedies can create a fundraising phenomenon,'' Rubenstein said. "People feel compelled to give something or do something to help without realizing what they are getting themselves into."
We Are Newtown
Following the shooting, in which 20 first-graders and six adults were killed inside the school, the town was inundated with letters from all over the world. Many included cash or checks that were made out to the Town of Newtown.
The town decided to set up two separate funds, both of which are still soliciting donations through the town's website.
The Sandy Hook Private Purpose Trust Fund was established for direct aid to the 26 families or for scholarships. There was $96,483 in that fund at one point. Each of the 26 families was recently given a $3,000 check from the fund, town Finance Director Robert Tait said.
The second fund, the Sandy Hook Special Revenue Fund, has about $287,950 and eventually will be used to pay for public purposes, such as parks, playgrounds, schools and memorials.
At least four other groups are collecting money for memorials, even though the town has not decided where it will build one.
The Newtown Memorial Fund has raised more than $1.1 million. The group had discussed a memorial with a Miami Beach architect which filed plans with the state. But Newtown Memorial Fund officials said they are not affiliated with the Miami firm. Jeffrey Belanger, the vice chairman of the board of directors, said the architect had contacted his group but that the board "felt there were no opportunities to work together." Belanger said the board decided it was "extremely premature to discuss plans for a memorial."
One of the three "We Are Newtown" groups, started by Sandy Hook resident Sam Mihailoff, is raising money to buy pink granite benches to put in a memorial garden. Even though he has no direct connection to the victims or to anyone at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Mihailoff said he wanted to do something as he watched the ambulances and police cruisers go by his house on Dec. 14.
"I got the idea for the name from the movie about the Marshall [University] football team,'' Mihailoff said, referring to the 2006 film "We Are Marshall." "Now it has become the most overused phrase out there."
Mihailoff doesn't know anything about the other two "We Are Newtown" and said he is focused on raising enough money to buy 20 granite benches, each inscribed with the name of a child who died.
He started selling green "We Are Newtown" bumper stickers at a few shops in town and by standing out at a commuter lot. He has sold more $11,400 worth of bumper stickers, enough to cover the costs of the benches. He said he hopes to raise enough more money to buy six more benches to honor the school personnel who died that day.
He is teaming up with the Newtown Forestry Association, which is planning its own memorial garden.
"Everyone is trying to do something, but really there isn't anything you can do for those little children,'' Mihailoff said. "I just hope 100 years from now, when somebody sits on that bench and sees the name of one of these little children, they will take the time to go and look up what happened to them."
As she sat in her Chesterfield, Mo., home watching the horror unfold at Sandy Hook, Tara Regan decided she had to do something to help.
"I have two boys, 5 and 8, and I wanted them to know even though we live far away, we can still help,'' Regan said.
She decided to sell bracelets that say "Sandy Hook Newtown Ct. Forever Angels." Within a day of starting a Facebook page, she had almost 800 orders. She has since sold more than 1,500 bracelets to people in 26 states. She raised about $7,700.
Regan said she recently called Newtown officials to get recommendations on where to donate the money and also checked out the various charities' websites. She eventually chose four charities — a fund set up in honor of slain student Olivia Engel, the Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Fund and funds for the first responders and teachers. Regan and Olivia's father, Brian, both graduated from New Milford High School, a few towns away.
Rubenstein, the head of the department of consumer protection, said it is important for donors to research charities before deciding to donate. He advises against donating by credit card over the phone.
He said the challenge for some groups is figuring out how to dispense the money they've raised.
The Newtown Rotary Club, which has raised about $700,000, decided early that it needed a process to distribute funds quickly to the families.
"This was really uncharted territory, but our attitude was to put the money to work quickly,'' Rotarian Dan Rosenthal said.
The Rotary Club first worked through the Newtown First Selectmen's office, which alerted the group to families that needed money for mental health services or to help pay their mortgages. Rotary officials have now teamed up with the United Way of Western Connecticut, which also is providing money through its emergency fund, and the state Office of Victim Services to assist them.
Family of the victims, first responders, teachers or surviving students can contact the state office, which processes the application and determines the needs. The agency then alerts the Rotary Club about how much money is needed. It could be grocery gift cards or paying a utility bill.
Rosenthal said the club has distributed more than $70,000 so far.
"We thought it would have a chilling effect to have people in the community vetting who was going to get money,'' Rosenthal said. "Now we know people are getting helped out without having to come before the people they live with and ask for help."
Fair To Everyone
One fund has already given significant amounts of money to victims families: the My Sandy Hook Family Fund, which started in the kitchen of Rob and Deb Accomando, whose child attends Sandy Hook Elementary School.
They started collecting money from parents, established a website and have now raised more than $1.3 million, Rob Accomando said.
One of the more interesting donations came from New York Giants Coach Tom Coughlin, who donated all of the money he collected last season in fines from players — more than $20,000. Coughlin is notorious stickler for fining players who aren't at least 15 minutes early to meetings.
"He sent a note with the check saying this is from all the bad boys from the New York Giants,'' Accomando said.
With that much money in the fund, the Accomandos turned to the Department of Consumer Protection for help. The group also is now getting free assistance from attorneys from Pullman & Comley on tax issues.
"I sat with them in their kitchen and explained what they needed to do as far as tax implications for themselves as well as the families they were trying to help ,'' Rubenstein said.
Accomando said he expects to pass the $1 million mark in money given to the families as soon as next week. He said 22 of the 26 families have received some financial assistance. The network of people ready with just a phone call to assist a family is now more than 1,000 people, he said.
"We had no clue what was going to happen when we started this,'' Rob Accomando said. "I think people got a sense early on that this was pure, and believed that all of the money really was going to the families."
He said the organization was formed to assist the families for the long haul even if the money eventually runs out. Accomando is trying to get a non-profit group to take over the fund long-term, but so far he hasn't had any luck.
Town officials recently voted to establish a "Charitable Coordination Board" to reach out to the various groups and determine how much they have raised and what they plan to do to the money.
General Electric has volunteered at least two full-time employees to help the town start that process.
By far, the most scrutinized fund is also the largest one — the $10 million Sandy Hook School Support Fund.
As donations started pouring in, The United Way of Western Connecticut and the Newtown Bank volunteered to run the fund until the town determined a way to handle it themselves. Town officials recently appointed a five-member volunteer board called the Sandy Hook Foundation Inc. that includes a priest, a psychiatrist and the town's former finance director to oversee the fund.
Selectmen Will Rodgers, who helped select the new board, said town officials talked with people from Aurora, Colo., Oklahoma City, Okla., and Littleton, Colo., where Columbine High School is located, about how they handled distributing money that was donated after mass killings in their communities.
"The two things that came through were: Make sure that there is a huge level of public participation in deciding how funds will be distributed, and make sure that there is a degree of professionalism involved in making those decisions,'' Rodgers said.
He said town officials are aware of the criticisms surrounding the United Way fund and have moved as quickly as possible to develop a plan for distributing it. Rodgers added that he doesn't envy the volunteers on the new board, who will face difficult decisions.
"It is going to be impossible to keep everybody happy,'' Rodgers said. "We want to make sure that the process is fair for everyone."
Copyright © 2015, The Hartford Courant