This is Me: The path to a better world

By on April 18, 2013
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As Kyle Gallatin headed home from Quinnipiac University for winter break, he sat next to his mom, listening as his hometown became the center of the world’s attention.

Rebecca Castagna | The Quinnipiac Chronicle
He woke up that morning to a text message from his dad, saying there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Not two hours later, Kyle was on his way home to Newtown, Conn., straight to the scene of the tragedy, where 20 students and six teachers were murdered.

They drove back in silence, listening to the developing story on the radio, trying to comprehend it as the body count rose and the developments worsened. At first, the thought of such evil lurking in the streets of this tight-knit community was unimaginable for Kyle. But the closer they got to town, the more the reality of the tragedy sank in.

The winter break vibe he had that morning had vanished. As they drove through Newtown, he felt the life sucked from the town. The once quaint, small town was suddenly filled to the brim with spectators and media trying to get in.

News trucks littered Treadwell Day Camp at the center of town, where Kyle, a sophomore biology major, volunteered for a year in high school and is now employed as a day counselor for the summer. As he heard the details of the shooting, he immediately thought of the kids from camp.

“I’m surprised that no one I immediately knew from one of my groups was hurt or anything like that,” Gallatin said. “But we know that a lot of these kids lost friends.”

Treadwell Day Camp is right around the corner from Sandy Hook Elementary. Most of the kids at his camp go there. The tragedy has caused him to reflect on the inevitable changes of a job he describes as getting paid to have fun, as he anticipates working with children whose innocence was lost and carefree lives were turned upside down in a matter of minutes.

Kyle’s mom, Cynthia Gallatin, has confidence in his ability to work with the children despite the potentially difficult circumstances, dealing with fragile and raw emotions and feelings.

“He’s good with kids, he’s kind of quiet and I think he’ll just listen,” she said. “He used to come home after work and tell me that he had this little girl who would just talk and talk and talk to him about her boyfriend, and everything that she was doing. He just thought it was hysterical.”

It is that very humor and openness that Kyle commits himself to keeping alive in the hearts of the kids he works with.

“Kyle will get them engaged and playing games, which is kind of what the kids need,” Cynthia said. “They need to not be reminded of this every day because there are too many reminders.”

When the Newtown Youth Academy opened its doors for kids the week after the tragedy, Kyle took a “roll-up-my-sleeves” approach and was there for 3-4 hours a day that week. He took from his experience as a counselor, and played with the kids from Sandy Hook.

“Honestly, playing with kids really lifts you from everything,” Gallatin said. “For those hours of the day I didn’t think about it at all. Those kids were just like having so much fun … and that’s what I feel like being around kids is. They’re so innocent and so lovable that it literally made everything go away.

“They have no worries, so I don’t have to have any worries either. If I could help any of these kids at all, I would love to do that.”

His roommate, sophomore Jeremy Patino, says Kyle always knows what to do when it comes to comforting and supporting people.

“If there’s somebody that I’ll run to, he’s definitely the first person I’ll go to,” Patino said. “He’s not one to react in stupid ways to adversity. He’s just intelligent enough to take a step back and process things.”

Even though it is still challenging, and he has a friend whose mother, Anne Marie Murphy, was one of the slain teachers, being away at college and somewhat removed from the situation despite his close community connections has allowed Kyle to step back and see how he can help.

Cynthia saw an opportunity to help in an email from the women’s group she is a part of, Women in Newtown. It called for volunteers to help sort through the remaining letters and artwork sent to the town, left over from the “Snowflakes for Sandy Hook” volunteer initiative.

It started as a small initiative, but went viral. Eight trucks later, volunteers found themselves at Pitney Bowes, the company that opened its doors for the sorting.

Cynthia signed them up for a three-hour shift during spring break, at the tail-end of the sorting.

“Kyle was a good sport, as always,” she said. “[Volunteering] is just something you do. He and his brother have been doing it since they were little.”

Patino had invited Kyle to go meet up with friends in New Jersey that day. Instead of skipping out on the three hours, Kyle stuck with his commitment and went with his mom.

“This whole thing brought out some of Kyle’s better qualities,” Patino said. “He’s very dedicated and committed to helping people – the kid doesn’t have a bad bone in his body.”

They read through letter after letter and went through each drawing, while others cataloged each address with the goal to eventually compile an online database to thank everyone online. Special poems and letters were scanned to be put online so everyone can see them.

“If we could scan every single one we would, but there’s no way you could possibly do that,” Kyle said. “I just went through and tried to pick the ones that were the most special and that made me want to cry the most. Because they were pretty hard to read.”

The letters poured in from all around the world. He read letters from older people, families with young children, kids and their classrooms, even letters in other languages and from other countries like Uganda and Australia. They will all be kept.

“Obviously it was gonna make you super sad, so I was trying not to cry,” Kyle said. “But on top of that I was also trying not to cry because it was so amazing that millions of people around the world got together to help. It was truly amazing to read those letters and I am so thankful to everyone around the world who sent them.”

Kyle couldn’t help but put himself in the shoes of the senders. He read one letter from a principal, who wrote about how the example set by the strength of the teachers has helped his community come together.

“It was really the letters from other teachers across the world that really got to me,” Gallatin said. “They were just talking about how they can’t even imagine the pain of seeing their students taken away from them. Those are probably the most painful to read.”

The volunteers sat and read to themselves, occasionally sharing an especially touching letter, amazing story or funny drawing.

“One little girl didn’t even write about Newtown, but instead wrote ‘Merry Christmas’ and then made a bad pun about pizza – and I laughed so hard in the midst of everything,” Gallatin said. “The little cheer up jokes, little kid writing, the spelling … it was just hilarious.”

But Kyle admits having difficulty fully embracing the reality of the “Hope for Sandy Hook” campaign.

“I don’t have any hopes or expectations,” Gallatin said. “It would be lovely to say that I really hope the world can turn around from this … but I still think we have a long way to go. I’m not a very optimistic person when it comes to the world outlook. I’m not sure if I trust people all that much, but hopefully what it did was it sped up the path for the world to someday change into something better.”

He has already seen glimpses of hope in the outpouring of support the town has received, through the smallest and biggest of gestures.

Kyle left a Panera one day and noticed a blanketing of cards in the parking lot – one on his dashboard read, “Hugs from Boston.” A woman from Iowa set up camp in the middle of town and handed out free pies. Someone from Australia called a local coffee shop and paid for Newtown residents’ coffee for the day.

“Yeah, the world has given us a lot,” Kyle said.

Before Dec. 14, few people knew about the small community of Sandy Hook.

“This was a little school on a country lane, it couldn’t have been more out of the way,” Cynthia said. “It kind of shakes up your perspective of the world a little bit.”

She deliberately moved to Newtown when she was pregnant with Kyle, because of its good school system and reputation as a nice community.

“This is home for them,” she said. “It’s where they grew up. For my kids, this was a safe place. And to see something like this happen is so out of whack with reality.

“I used to have this funny joke at the dinner table, ‘Don’t do anything stupid, guys, because the police will be all over you. They have nothing else to do in this town.’”

This perception that the Gallatins had of Newtown was entirely at odds with the violence that suddenly defined it in the media. Kyle remembers seeing the shooter when he was in high school, and has avoided watching the media coverage of the shooter and the shootings because it is too unsettling and surreal, like reliving a nightmare.

“Everyone’s just looking back on it and looking back on that kid and like if you saw that kid you would never…” he said, his words trailing off. “I remember learning about Columbine and things like that in Sociology and you can’t feasibly apply that to your real life until it happens.”

Even though it shook up his perspective, Kyle is focused on making a difference.

“I don’t want to be a victim,” Gallatin said. “I want to be strong for the people who actually deserve to be sad. And I don’t feel like I deserve to be sad as much.”

It’s why he wears his Angels of Sandy Hook wristbands and his own homemade bracelets that read: “Remember SHS” and “I Love Newtown.”

“I feel like [wearing the bracelets] grounds me on a daily basis,” Kyle said. “It really is a solid reminder, and I don’t want to forget, in the slightest, those kids at all.”

Kyle’s resilience and commitment to provide support and give true and lasting value to the lives of those taken in the Newtown tragedy are unwavering.

“He’s been really great about it,” Cynthia said. “I think he’s been sort of a champion.”

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