Ten Years After Sandy Hook Shootings, Healing Looks Different for Everyone

December 13, 2022 @ 8:09 pm

December 14, 2022, marks the tenth anniversary of one of the most horrific mass shootings in American history. On this day in 2012, a 20-year-old gunman entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 20 children and 6 staff members. He also shot his mother and himself, bringing the death toll to 28.

At a time when shootings at schools, malls, and supermarkets seem to occur every week, we talked to School of Social Work alum Stephanie Cinque (MSW ‘03) about how social workers can respond to such events. Cinque, a Newtown resident, is founder and executive director of the Resiliency Center of Newtown, a community organization that uses innovative therapies to help its residents heal.

What personal journey led you to this work?

At the time of the Sandy Hook School shooting I had two kids, a first grader and a preschool student. I was a social worker in the public defender’s office. My kids were in private school but had friends who were in Sandy Hook School that day. After about two weeks, when the shock and numbness wore off, I felt compelled to do something to help people get the support they needed.

People didn’t know where to go. School wasn’t happening. It was the holidays. So I looked around to see what organizations were out there, and I decided we needed a place to gather where people felt comfortable and safe, to normalize what was very un-normal, and to get supports in place.

How did the concept for the Resiliency Center evolve?

After any tragedy, people come into town very well intended. They help the community professionally, and then they have to leave, and you have to start over again. But nine months after the shootings, the Center opened, and it was about healing through relationship, engaging people who were impacted, and then, hopefully, providing mental health services.

That really worked for us. We were community members who worked there and lived there. People would see me at the grocery store or the baseball field. The police officers knew me from my court work. We would come together and go to a Mets game or a Rangers game. And when things became difficult for them, especially for first responders and adults, who are harder to get to services, they would say, “So what do you actually do at the Resiliency Center? I think I need to go there.”

We also realized that the kids lost their innocence that day. When a kid goes through a traumatic event and witnesses the things they did, how do we support the parents in their journey of wanting to be overprotective while trying to let the kids be kids? We decided to open day camps in town. A place in the woods with no cell phones, staffed by therapists and volunteers, where the kids could do the things kids should do.

Are there any special moments or successes that have stayed with you?

Now that the kids who were most impacted are reaching high school, they’re sharing their stories. Recently a couple of girls who have gotten vocal in the advocacy realm were talking about going to camp and how they hadn’t realized how important the Center was for them when they were seven, eight, nine years old.

All the kids who were in school that day share the same experience, but their reactions and their stories are all very different. Probably this year before December 14 we will open the Center for people to gather and share their stories.

What misperceptions do you encounter about school shootings and the relevant trauma? What would you like the public to know?

Coming up on year ten will bring back a lot of memories. Even with good therapy and with becoming resilient, every time there is another tragedy, like the Uvalde school shooting, it brings up a lot of that emotion. As a nation, what are we going to do longterm to continue supporting people who have been impacted?

Because we know there is a mental health crisis in our country. We need to make sure we have available resources that are also accessible. This perception of “Oh, are you over it? You’re still worried about that? You’re still talking about that?” It doesn’t work that way. The trauma doesn’t just go away.

In this video by Ralph Ford, monks from DNKL, The Tibetan Buddhist Center for Universal Peace in Redding, CT, conduct a healing ritual of building and destroying a Compassion Sand Mandala at the Resiliency Center of Newtown in April 2019.