As many Americans have moved on in their workaday lives, the memory of the unfathomable Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where 20 kindergartners, along with six teachers and administrators lost their lives, may be a fading one. But for a group of residents of Queens, N.Y., the horrible day hasn’t lost focus or resonance. Among the victims that day was 6-year-old Benjamin Wheeler, whose parents David and Francine moved with young Ben and his older brother Nate to Newtown from the picturesque New York City community of Sunnyside. Friends of the family along with other community-minded residents hosted a benefit for the Wheeler family on Feb. 22 in what Roger Hitts, one of the event organizers, deemed a rousing success.
“It was very, very heartening,” Hitts told Highlight Hollywood exclsuively. “Of course many of David and Francine’s friends attended, but many, many others who did not know the family but were moved by their tragedy and their story of perseverance in that face of that tragedy came and gave of their hearts and wallets as well.”
“I think many people may not realize that along with the incredible emotional fallout for the families who were victimized in this horrific event, there was financial fallout as well,” Hitts said. “Anything we could do to help ease the burden on this wonderful, much-loved family was something we really wanted – in some ways needed – to do.”
One of the most uplifting aspects of the evening were the more than 100 young children who attended. They were well-entertained – local children, children of event organizers Samantha Felixbrod and Jen Busnel among them, applied tattoos and set up a beauty parlor for nail-painting, much to the delight of the young ones. A magician entertained the little ones, and local children’s performers Richard Younger and Allison Tartaglia had the small set dancing to their music.
“Just to me, it brought Ben’s spirit closer to all of us, seeing those young children really having a grand time,” Hitts said. “In some ways, Ben’s spirits lives on through the children whose parents have felt David and Francine’s loss. It was truly a beautiful evening.”
And a well-done one in terms of money. New York City councilman Jimmy Van Bramer attended, and took the stage to auction off a pair of round-trip plane tickets to anywhere in the U.S., which his office secured from Jet Blue airlines. Along with some other raffle and auction items, including a rental of a photo booth, children’s musical theater classes and sports tickets to New York Mets and New York Islanders games, brought in winning bids as high as $750.
“I practically had tears in my eyes seeing how generous people were being,” Hitts said. Scores of local Queens businesses donated food, drink and auction items, making it a real community-minded affair, Hitts added. “We are just one community that was affected by the Sandy Hook tragedy,” Hitts said. “Other communities are doing wonderful things to help these stricken families as well.
“We show, time and time again, we can pull together when things seem at their worst.”
Hitts said the likes of Tonia Nelson, Rebecca Wilkins, Ty Sullivan, Kim Brown and Trevor Bowen “just worked overtime to make this event to help the Wheelers a success,” and noted how proud “the whole community is of David and Francine” for their work with the Sandy Hook Promise organization that promotes a national dialogue on gun violence, mental health and school safety. “They are brave, compassionate people,” Hitt said.
If others wish to donate to the Ben Wheeler Fund, established to provide financial relief for the Wheeler family and for the long-term care of their surviving son Nate, contributions can be mailed to:
The Benjamin Wheeler Fund, c/o Newtown Savings Bank, 39 Main St., Newtown, CT 06470 or online to paypal: https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=GEUE4BC9C8TLJ