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Sandy Hook school shooting counselor: 'Playing helps them'

December 16, 2012|By Brian Bennett
  • A woman hugs a young girl as they arrive for services at Trinity Church in Newtown, Conn.
A woman hugs a young girl as they arrive for services at Trinity Church in… (Jason DeCrow / Associated…)

NEWTOWN, CONN. — Grief counselors and child psychologists from throughout the country gathered at Reed Intermediate School on Sunday morning to prepare for another day of consoling the heartbroken and traumatized families of this New England town.

Next to the registration tables, in one of the school's brightly lighted art classrooms, three volunteers in red T-shirts put out paint brushes, arranged stuffed animals and spread out puzzle pieces decorated with candy canes for kids to put back together.

Parents can leave their children here, under the supervision of volunteers, while they talk through the effects of the shooting with mental health professionals and are given techniques for how to help their children handle the tragedy.

FULL COVERAGE: Connecticut school shooting

Many of the children who will play here Sunday attended Sandy Hook Elementary School and only three days ago huddled in classrooms, closets and bathrooms while the gunman opened fire with a high-powered rifle, killing 20 students and six staff and teachers, including their principal.  

"Playing helps them maintain a sense of normalcy amid all the chaos," said Ken Murdoch, who has lived in Newtown for nearly 20 years and helped set up the room.

"They can still have their childhood," he said.

Murdoch is the chief information officer for Save the Children, an international aid organization based in Westport, Conn. that sponsored the playroom.

The organization delivers food to children and in times of disasters, sets up child-care rooms like this one where kids can briefly escape the traumatic events around them.

He never thought he would be doing this in his hometown.

"My heart bleeds for these kids," said Murdoch.

Jeanne-Aimee De Marrais, who was playing with children here Saturday, said many kids came into the sunny room looking "closed off" and "shut down." But once they started to play, "the weight lifted off," she said.

PHOTOS: Connecticut school shooting

One father on Saturday said his son had been in a classroom next to the shootings. "If you can get him to say something, that would be great," the man whispered. After a few minutes of playing, the boy began to open up and talk with other kids, said De Marrais.

One boy told De Marrais about how his teacher locked his class in the bathroom for two hours and there was nothing to do except play tic-tac-toe. "It was so boring and so scary," he told her.

As children made reindeer ornaments out of clothespins, De Marris tried to ask questions about the holiday plans

"They need to know there is something to look forward to, that things will go on," said De Marrais, who is the director of U.S. emergency programs for Save the Children and has spent the past several weeks in New York helping children cope with the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

De Marris has stopped tracking the news reports about the shooting, she needs to keep her mind clear and happy to play with the kids that went through the shooting.

The victims of the Newtown, Conn. shooting

"We need to be happy," said De Marris, standing next to a table topped with animals made of Play-Doh, her eyes welling up with tears. "This is a place of joy. There can be no sadness here."

A makeshift memorial has sprung up at the base of a flagpole outside the rooms being used for counseling. One student painted yellow rays of the sun and a picture of the Sandy Hook Elementary School principal, Dawn Hochsprung, who was killed as she lunged to stop the gunman.

Written in silver glitter and pink letters across the page are the words: "Dear Mrs. Hochsprung you are so nice because you take care of us."

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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