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Newtown families mark anniversary with a plea for parents to unite

Street artist Mark Panzarino, 41, prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-mont
Street artist Mark Panzarino, 41, prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-mont

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mark Barden liked to call his son Daniel the "custodian of all living creatures," the sort of 7-year-old who would comfort someone sitting alone or looking sad or who would help another child with a stuck jacket zipper.

Daniel was shot to death last December 14 along with 19 of his classmates and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. After the massacre, his relatives started a Facebook group, "What Would Daniel Do", to encourage people to show kindness to others.

"Daniel had just a wonderful little way about him. He just was wired for compassion and empathy," said Mark Barden.

Organized efforts like that will be part of a campaign unveiled on Thursday called "Parent Together" that seeks to increase communication between parents nationwide and implement strategies to identify mental illness early, promote gun safety and combat social isolation in communities and schools.

"There's been a lot of work done on this issue of gun violence and a lot of what we're seeing doesn't seem to be working," said Barden, who is a professional musician. "So what a great place to start, with that foundation of love. And hopefully the whole idea of parenting - parent together - is going to be the vehicle that moves the conversation forward."

In the 11 months since the massacre, Barden and other members of the relatives' group "Sandy Hook Promise" have pushed for stronger gun control and laws related to mental illness.

Last April, a background check bill backed by some of the families as well as President Barack Obama failed to win enough support in the U.S. Senate, which was widely seen as stalling the momentum gun control proponents had gained after the Newtown shooting.

A "MASSIVE COMMUNITY"

"We're saying, let's stop this polarized debate, and let's reset the conversation to - we all love our children, and let's put their needs first, and find a way to identify and implement sensible solutions that will protect them," said Nicole Hockley, who lost her 6-year-old son Dylan on December 14.

The idea is for people to go to the Sandy Hook Promise website and sign a promise to "parent together." The group hopes to build a community of 500,000 people by the end of this year, and to double that number by the end of 2014.

Early next year, Sandy Hook Promise will begin rolling out programs and tools that they believe will help prevent gun violence.

Hockley said she and others from Sandy Hook Promise have been looking at "regional best-practice programs" that can be turned into models for communities across the country.

"I think of myself and, before 12/14, I considered myself fairly typical, unextraordinary. I would see tragedies on the news or read about them, and I would say, 'How awful,' feel helpless, and then get back to my daily life," said Hockley.

"And with 12/14, as a nation we really came together in terms of a shared outpouring of support and grief, and that was - as one of the people on the receiving end - an incredible moment," said Hockley. "If (parents) come together, join together, and put our kids first, that is a massive community."

The Hockleys and the Bardens and many of the other Newtown families will be out of town this December 14, and the town of Newtown, which played host to a deluge of media and activists last winter, has said it will not host any public events.

"There are 26 families working hard to recover, and for some the journey is long and difficult and our main goal is to protect their rights and their privacy," Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra said in an interview.

"We are not a tourist attraction or a large city. We are a small town of 28,000 that just wants to be left alone to heal," she said.

(Additional reporting by Richard Weizel; Editing by Ken Wills)

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