THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
NEWTOWN, Conn. — Newtown first-grader Katelyn Sullivan has been sleeping in her parents’ bed since last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school.
Katelyn, who attends another school in town, knew seven of the victims. They were in her Sunday school or dance class, or just friends. But on this day, the 6-year-old wasn’t thinking about bad men or death. She was meeting soccer stars such as Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan, and kicking a ball around the field at the Newtown Youth Academy, a non-profit sports centre.
"The best part was probably playing soccer," she said. "I was playing with professional players, but I don’t know who they were."
She just shrugged when her parents mentioned that one was Alexi Lalas, the retired star of the U.S. national team.
Since the tragedy, Katelyn and her two older brothers also have met members of the Harlem Globetrotters and the UConn men’s basketball team. Brooklyn Nets forward Kris Humphries picked Katelyn up at one event to help her dunk a basketball.
But what mattered to her parents was their children were having fun.
"It’s just been huge," said Joe Sullivan, Katelyn’s father. "It’s a pick-me-up for the community and the kids to get back to a little bit of a sense of normalcy and to kind of take their minds off of everything that has happened."
The sports world began responding shortly after the 20 children and six adults were killed inside the school Dec. 14.
New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz came to play tag football and video games with the family and friends of victim Jack Pinto, after learning the 6-year-old shooting victim was to be buried in a replica of Cruz’s jersey. The Giants later hosted families from Sandy Hook at a game.
"I didn’t want to go in there and make a speech," Cruz said. "I just wanted to go and spend some time with them and be someone they could talk to, and be someone they can vent to, talk about how much of a fan they are of the team, or different times they watched the Super Bowl."
Later in the month, NBA and NHL stars helped lead a series of clinics and games for Newtown children at the Chelsea Piers sports centre in nearby Stamford. Pro lacrosse players did the same in Newtown.
And college hockey players from the University of New Haven came to help staff the centre when it opened its doors to Newtown children to come in and play.
The media has been barred from most of the events.
"We made sure everyone understood that if they were coming, they had to be playing with the kids," said Kaki Taylor, who helped organize the events at the youth academy. "This isn’t a public relations opportunity. It’s about the kids. Everyone has been great about that."
Gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman visited the centre and a local gymnastics school, where one little girl told her it was the best day of her life.
"A lot of the kids who died were young gymnasts, so I felt like I had connection to them," Raisman said. "It was such an easy thing to do to go and hang out with them. It made me feel really good to do something for them."
Peter D’Amico, who owns the youth centre, said he’s taken calls from pro and college teams from all over. Some have offered free equipment, others want to invite the kids to games, still others want to come to town to hold events such as last week’s MLS-sponsored Soccer Day in Newtown. The evening of autographs and games included 40 players and more than 1,000 kids.
Many others have sent money.
The Orange Bowl Committee, host of the BCS Championship, donated US$80,120 to a scholarship fund for Sandy Hook children being set up by the University of Connecticut.
The New England Patriots donated $25,000 to the town. Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s family also owns a corrugated box plant in Newtown.
"What we are trying to ensure is this doesn’t end in a couple of weeks," D’Amico said. "The Yankees, Mets and Red Sox might be doing something this summer with the Little League. The Patriots are talking about something next football season."
Nathan Grube, the director of the PGA Tour’s Connecticut stop, the Travelers Championship, said they are keeping that message in mind and are making plans to do something during the tournament in June. Officials at Madison Square Garden say they are planning something big that will be announced in the near future.
Hamm, the retired soccer star, said nobody in the sports world is under an illusion that they can make all the pain and suffering go away. But athletes remember what it was like to be a young child and have a sports hero, she said. If they can show the kids that their heroes care about them, well, that might just be a little something.
"If you’re a kid, you shouldn’t have to be thinking about these things," Lalas said. "You should be having fun. You should be kicking me in the shins and trying to put the ball through my legs and making fun of my hair. Making them smile, that’s what this is all about."
Dr. Marian Moca, a child psychiatrist at the UConn Health Center, said what the athletes are doing is important, and creates a sense of caring, support and safety the kids need at this time.
"They also play an important role as role models for these kids," he said, "and are teaching them empathy and altruism, which I think is important too."
UConn basketball coach Kevin Ollie said it’s not just the kids who benefit.
"They are inspiring us in the way they are overcoming this," he said. "It’s been a blessing and a privilege for me. It’s a life lesson for us too."