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What Will Happen To All The Letters People Sent to Newtown?

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Two months after the massacre at an elementary school in Connecticut, letters, cards and gifts continue to arrive in Newtown each day, but the town is not sure what to do with it all.

The outpouring of grief started arriving just days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School — poetry, stories, banners and posters. Soon the halls of Newtown's Municipal Center and buildings all over town were packed with messages from children and parents, from a soldier in Afghanistan and an inmate at a California prison.

"I was put in charge of all the logistics for this warehouse. I've got about 20,000 square feet full of donations here," says Chris Kelsey, the town's tax assessor. These days he spends a lot of time at a nondescript warehouse in Newtown. Boxes are piled high and shrink-wrapped. There are 500 labeled as toys and 2,000 marked as school supplies.

"We're up to over 63,000 teddy bears right now. We've seen bicycles, sleds. It runs the gamut of anything you could send," says Kelsey.

A few miles away in his studio/barn in Newtown, illustrator Ross MacDonald reads from a letter written by an 11-year-old:

"Dear Families: I am sorry for your loss. My grandpa died three weeks ago. I'm in foster care. When my grandpa died I was heartbroken, so I might know what you're going through. I go to First Baptist Church."

MacDonald is photographing the letters and artwork, documenting reaction to an event that hit the world hard. He wants the cards, letters and art to be archived and preserved.

"This is a drawing from I believe a very young child on a piece of pink construction paper. There's a small red heart with arms and legs and two little eyes. And there's a word balloon that says 'I'm sorry,' " says MacDonald. "It's both profoundly moving and just a beautiful piece of folk art."

Virtually all the mail is first delivered to the Newtown Municipal Center. Public Works Director Fred Hurley says seeing daily reminders of the tragedy has taken a toll on town workers.

"Many of the government staff has been intricately involved in this for the last two months every day. But we still have a town to run. So that's one of the big challenges we have is to take care of the day-to-day business and also to move the needs of the town emotionally along with what has happened," says Hurley.

Victims' families and town residents were invited to take anything they wanted to keep. Now MacDonald and a local preservation group are talking with Newtown officials and professional archivists about ways to save the written messages and art.

Kathleen Craughwell-Varda is director of Conservation Connection, a conservation planning project at the Connecticut State Library. She says Newtown is the latest in a series of American tragedies that have provoked an outpouring of response.

"Virginia Tech has created an online exhibition and archive. And we have all the development of the [Sept. 11] museum and memorial. And there's also the Vietnam War Memorial, where people are leaving things still, more than 25 years later," says Craughwell-Varda.

Town officials have been planning to photograph the materials, then incinerate them, incorporating the ash into a future public memorial. But no decision has been made. Connecticut State Librarian Ken Wiggin says that's not surprising.

"It's still very raw, I mean, two months out, and so I think people are sensitive about wanting to do the right thing, but they're overwhelmed," says Wiggin. "This is a huge volume of material."

The state has offered to house many of the items in a climate-controlled space. The town has agreed not to destroy anything right away. And illustrator MacDonald says he'll continue to advocate for preserving the response to a tragedy he hopes will never happen again.

Copyright 2013 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnpr.org.

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