Teacher finds her way after Sandy Hook
Greenwich (AP) - Sandy Hook Elementary School first-grade teacher Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis always cries when she reads students her favorite childhood book, "Lyle, Lyle Crocodile."
It's a classic tale of kindness and respect for the misunderstood - a kind and heroic, rather than scary, crocodile who lives with a human family in Manhattan. It's a theme that Roig-DeBellis considers a key lesson for all children, how the seeds of kindness planted early blossom into good for a lifetime.
She's not reading about Lyle this year at Sandy Hook, a school where she taught for the previous six years.
Instead, the 29-year-old Greenwich resident is on a yearlong sabbatical, her days devoted to her new project, a pay-it-forward website for classrooms.
The project is one woman's response to tragedy.
Friday morning, Dec. 14, 2012, was a peaceful time, before 9:30, in Roig-DeBellis' first-grade class. One of her students was absent that day, but the other 15 sat raptly listening to their teacher.
"We were in morning meeting, which is my favorite part of the day," Roig-DeBellis recalled. "It is the calmest part of the day; it is one of the quietest times of the day. So it was a blessing that that's where we were when the shooting began because they were very calm and quiet and I had their undivided attention."
The shooting began. In a neighborhood elementary school.
She heard gunman Adam Lanza, 20, a former Sandy Hook student, blasting through the glass in the front entrance.
"Our proximity to where he shot in, we couldn't have been any closer, really. So the second it started I closed the door and I turned off the lights. And then I literally turned around and told them, 'Into the bathroom, now."'
For 45 minutes, Roig-DeBellis comforted her students, keeping them from any crying outbursts for fear the slightest noise might draw gunfire.
The school principal and psychologist lay dead in the hallway.
The gunman reached two other first-grade classrooms, killing 20 children and four other educators. Then he killed himself.
Long after her class was rescued by police, Roig-DeBellis still did not know the death toll.
Parents of those children huddled in the small bathroom remain indebted to the teacher.
"All of us consider her our personal hero," said Erin Milgrim, whose daughter was in that class that day. "How do you thank somebody who thinks everyone is going to die, and yet she's telling your child she loves them. That is not something you will ever repay."
Roig-DeBellis leans lightly on a pillow - with the words "To the moon and back" - on the black leather couch in her Greenwich apartment as she talks about the future.
The 29-year-old married Nick DeBellis in August, after teaching summer school. She is training to run in the New York City Marathon Nov. 3.
Her demeanor is meticulous, energetic, motivated.
Her focus now is on an endeavor she conceived in January: the "Classes 4 Classes" kindness "pay it forward" initiative that allows students from kindergarten through fifth-grade to make a donation to students in other classes anywhere in the country.
In the spotlight
Initially after the shootings, Roig-DeBellis was something of a Sandy Hook personality. That very day, she was interviewed by ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer and immediately was the photogenic face of courage for the nation.
She granted interviews to Sawyer multiple times as well as other national news organizations.
She was a guest of President Barack Obama at the State of the Union address in January.
Closer to home, she was the feature profile in the September edition of Greenwich Magazine.
Outwardly strong, inwardly she was struggling.
For the first couple weeks after the shooting, she was terrified to be alone.
"I couldn't shower with the door closed; I couldn't sleep in the dark. I didn't go into a store alone ... It was such a sense that this could happen again."
For a while, she was out of the national spotlight and in her classroom at the new Sandy Hook school in Monroe, which Newtown education officials have sequestered from the general public.
The teacher is reluctant to talk about why she chose to take a sabbatical. There had been tensions between some Sandy Hook teachers and the district administration over several issues - how quickly the school would try to return to some version of normal; how public should educators be in discussing the tragedy; what were the best ways for the school community to deal with its anguish.
Board of Education member Bill Hart said he knows no specifics behind Roig-DeBellis' leave, though, certainly he is aware that the district has been sensitive to providing resources to any staff or student struggling to cope with the trauma from the shootings.
For this school year, the school district's counseling staff has been increased considerably through a $1.5 million federal grant dedicated to schools that have experienced an extreme trauma.
"Everybody is struggling with the right way for these kids to heal. Nobody has a definite answer for that," Hart said. "I think certainly her (Roig-DeBellis) heart is in the right place."
Roig-DeBellis will say only that she decided to take a leave of absence after finishing the 2012-13 school year to give herself personal time as well as to focus on her education project.
"I owe it to Classes 4 Classes to give it all my energy to impact as many children as possible because it's so important," she said.
The lesson is kindness
Upon the return from Christmas break, the Sandy Hook school and Newtown community were deluged with gifts from all over the world.
Cupcakes and Happy Meals, story books and stuffed animals. All was appreciated, and Roig-DeBellis enjoyed seeing her children's faces light up with such acts of generosity.
But she wanted to turn gratitude into action.
"We were getting and getting, and that's great, but if I don't teach my kids that when you get that you have to give back then I'm missing it here," said Roig-DeBellis, who grew up volunteering for such charities as the downtown soup kitchen.
In response to receiving so much, her class raised money to buy a class in Tennessee an electronic blackboard device. That class then raised money for an Arizona class to buy markers and a whiteboard.
"In life, the best thing you can do when someone does something nice for you is to do something nice for someone else because it keeps the kindness going," Roig-DeBellis instructed.
From that, the nonprofit project began. The official launch of the updated, interactive website - www.classes4classes.org - is slated for mid-October.
"We want this to become a global movement," said Patrick Morrow, chairman of the six-member Board of Directors.
The project specifies that a class collects its donation - from family members to a club or business looking for a charity to endorse - only after it schedules a donation for another class.
The organization recommends classroom requests between $250 and $1,000. Classes 4 Classes adds a 15 percent fee to cover its operating expenses.
With the updated website, Morrow said, class profiles will be kept up for 60 days to raise donations.
"I was just blown away," Morrow said of the concept. "To have someone go through a tragedy like that and to be able to turn it into something so powerful ... it's a phoenix rising from the ashes."
The goal is to instill in children the desire to be kind and generous to others, particularly those less fortunate.
"I think after experiencing what they did on that day, and the overwhelming abundance of things they were just getting and getting, I think it was extremely positive for them to have the experience of helping someone else," Roig-DeBellis said. "We're taking some power back. We're taking control back from a situation where they had none."
Even for the Sandy Hook School community, the epicenter of the tragedy, the way forward is as varied as each child or staff member.
"We all experienced an extreme tragedy ... but everyone's experience on 12/14 was very different," Roig DeBellis said of respecting every individual's journey through the grief. "What you heard, what you saw, and coming out of the experience, who you lost. And everyone continues to be on their own level of healing ... There is no rule book with instructions. And there aren't any answers."
It is clear, though, that the teacher helped her students deal with their emotions by showing kindness to others.
Milgrim said her daughter Lauren wanted to follow her teacher's lead. She started sharing her ample supply of stuffed animals whenever she visited anyone.
"We plan to be in touch forever," Milgrim said of her daughter's first-grade teacher. "She is a very, very special special person."
Back to Sandy Hook
For the coming school year, operating strictly on a volunteer basis, Roig-DeBellis will travel wherever she is requested to talk about Classes 4 Classes.
Then she is returning to the classroom. At this time, she said the plan is to rejoin the Sandy Hook faculty.
She is quick to say she has never stopped being a teacher, nor did she ever want to be anything else.
"I still am a teacher this year," she said. "But instead of one classroom I have hundreds of classrooms."
She has come far from Dec. 14, just one struggle of so many in the community. But at the same time, that day is never far from her thoughts.
"It's a constant," she said. "It's the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think of when I go to bed.'
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