In the four months since the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 27 dead and collectively broke a nation's heart, an outpouring of support and donations have been given to those students, parents and community members affected by the tragedy. A group of Legionnaires and a military-friendly businessman did their part earlier this month, giving the students an opportunity to be regular kids for a day.
With the help of Connecticut Legionnaires and Auxiliary members, Jeff Craddoc, owner of USMilitaryBears.com , brought a teddy-bear making studio to nearby Newtown United Methodist Church on April 13, inviting students of the school and their parents to spend the day together building their own customizable teddy bears.
Connecticut Past Department Commander Boyd Saxton and his wife, Alice Saxton, a past department president for the Auxiliary, helped Craddoc arrange the event at their church, providing refreshments, activity books for the students, and other Legionnaires and Auxiliary members to volunteer.
"A word comes to mind – awesome," Alice said. "It was great to see the kids come in and have a fun day. Nothing was said of what happened prior. They came in and they were themselves. They came in and laughed and played like kids should always be able to."
The event, which came almost exactly four months after the tragedy, had been in the making since Craddoc first heard news of it. Craddoc, whose business is a "military bear" version of the build-a-bear stores that are popular with youth, realized the opportunity he had to do a good service for the children and parents of Sandy Hook in the moments after the shooting.
"The event at Sandy Hook was created in my mind the same day as the murders occurred," Craddoc said. "I was not sure to what extent, or even how I could make it happen, but those were just details that would be figured out later."
Craddoc ultimately had to iron out several "details" before he got a portable bear-building studio to Sandy Hook. Due to the overwhelming support given to the residents and students of Sandy Hook, the school had to turn away good-natured individuals like Craddoc in the weeks after Dec. 14. The school also could no longer serve as a premises for any events similar to the one Craddoc envisioned.
Craddoc enlisted the help of the Saxton's, who are Sandy Hook residents. They helped him arrange a site - their church - for the event and put the donations that many posts and Legionnaires had sent them to help those affected by the tragedy toward refreshments, coloring books, and other gifts and activities for the estimated 400 parents and children in attendance.
"Posts from all over sent us donations," Alice said. "My husband and I extend our heartfelt appreciation for everyone's gratitude."
The operation hit one final snag on the day of the bear-building event, when an air compressor broke on Craddoc's stuffing machine. This forced parents and volunteers to help the children stuff the bears by hand.
Craddoc said the mishap made a memorable day even more memorable for all those involved.
"It was another way that (the parents) got to spend quality time with their children and instead of the time being over in minutes, they probably spent 15 minutes creating a bear and a memory together that will last forever," Craddoc said. "These families have a memory that was seared into their minds that will never go away."