Billings family, school organize paper heart drive for Newtown, Conn.

2012-12-17T15:00:00Z 2012-12-27T19:38:04Z Billings family, school organize paper heart drive for Newtown, Conn.By ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Gala Thompson didn't know how to tell her 5- and 9-year-old daughters, Hannah and Madeline, about the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 children and six adults.

Really, she didn't want to tell them about it all.

"I didn't want them to have to deal with that sadness," she said. "Then I started to think about it overnight and decided that there's got to be something positive that we can do and address it at the same time."

Over the weekend, the Thompsons talked a little about the shooting and — inspired by the documentary "Paper Clips," which focuses on Tennessee middle schoolers' efforts to collect 6 million paperclips to represent the 6 million Jewish people killed in the Holocaust — devised a plan and have already brought a local school and several Billings businesses into the fold.

Called Paper Hearts Across America, the project aims to gather nearly 19 million 6-inch-wide paper hearts — roughly the number it would take to stretch from Billings to Newtown in a straight line — to be sent to the community of Newtown.

"We're sad in our hearts for them," Thompson said. "But we hope that it can raise some awareness and help heal their, and our, community."

By Monday morning — a little more than a day after the plan formed — the Thompsons had collected more than 400 hearts from friends and neighbors and began their first big push to gather more.

Hannah and Madeline attend Broadwater Elementary, at 415 Broadwater Ave., and after hearing from the family, officials got on board with the plan, with individual classes carving out time during the day to make construction paper hearts.

"We have 18 classrooms, and my guess is we'll have 100 percent attendance with that," Principal Joe Halligan said. "It connects the students a little more to what's going on. I feel very lucky to be a part of this school community that's so caring."

If each student and staff member at the school made one heart, it would add up to about 450 to add to the ones already collected.

School officials agreed to have the school act as a collection point for hearts and ask that people, businesses and organizations in the Billings area make their own hearts and send them to the school, which will then send them to Newtown.

Halligan said they've already received calls from schools in Oregon, New Jersey and California, as well as a number of Billings-area schools and residents, interested in contributing and Thomspon said local businesses, including Walmart and Ace Hardware, also have signed on to help.

Twenty six new hearts came on Monday morning from Amy Robson's kindergarten class, which includes Hannah.

"We're not going into details about what happened, but I told them that we're making these because lots of people have broken hearts across America and maybe we can help," Robson said. "A lot of them can associate with that."

Within moments of Robson announcing the project to her class, the kids got to work in a flurry of paint, glue and glitter.

Lizzie Burr, 5, put a smiley face with big eyelashes on her heart and surrounded it with dabs of glitter and the word "love."

"We're going to glitter these up," she said. "Then we're going to put it into a package and send it to those people."

Dazia Peters, 6, wrote "LOVE" in big letters across his heart before adding stripes of blue glitter.

He said he was making it in memory of his dad's grandmother.

After about 25 minutes, Robson told the kids it was time to finish up. Students carefully took their hearts to a table in the back of the room, where they would dry and then be taped together in a single string.

Thompson said that she hopes the project takes on a life of its own. She's created a Facebook page for it and a flyer that she's asking people and businesses to post, share and email. The goal is for people across the country to pick up on it in a show of support for Newtown.

"If we could do that, and get more than 18 million hearts, that would be fabulous," she said. "Tell your neighbors and tell your friends. If it grows bigger, more people will help."

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