Hundreds of thousands of cards, letters, stuffed animals and children's artwork from around the world flooded into Newtown in the days and weeks after the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The town kept everything. Some of it was preserved in its original form. Others were documented in photos or turned into recycled material called "sacred soil," which officials hope can be used in the foundation of a new school or to construct a permanent memorial for the 26 victims of the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting.
"Nothing was thrown into a landfill," said Yolie Moreno, a resident who headed the archiving effort. "Every single thing was saved: tags from teddy bears, paper snowflakes, everything."
Moreno took charge of the letters, cards and artwork. Tens of thousands were sorted by state and country of origin. A group of volunteers, many of them professional photojournalists, then photographed them to create a digital record. Norwalk-based Xerox Corp. is helping create a website where people will be able to view much of it.
The town's library requested some of it for another website. About 5,000 pieces of correspondence will be stored there in a searchable form, Moreno said.
"We read through them and picked out a sampling of the most poignant," she said "It was important to us that people know that what they sent in was read, was appreciated."
About 30 boxes filled with handmade items also were kept and are in storage at the town municipal center. Officials hope it can be used in a future art installation in town, Moreno said.
Many of the items are from children, such as a watercolor with the words "You don't know how strong you are, until being STRONG is the only option you have," and another with a drawing of a bandaged heart and the words "I know your heart is broken, because mine swells with grief for you. So I made this healed heart, knowing it could never replace the broken pieces of what you lost, but help lessen the pain, if only a little."
The rest of it — about 400 cubic yards' worth of letters, votive candles, wreaths and teddy bears left in makeshift shrines all over Newtown — was taken to a trash-to-energy plant in October in Bridgeport.
Public works director Fred Hurley said all the material was treated with the utmost respect. The machines were cleaned, and plant operators made sure nothing from Newtown was mixed with anything else. The process of cremating the items was also filmed to ensure nothing was taken as a souvenir, he said.
"The material was incinerated, and the ash was cleaned out of the furnace and separated into a box for us," he said.
Another cremation will be held in the spring, he said, as more material comes into town after the anniversary of the massacre.
Plans call for mixing what is now about 2 cubic yards of sacred soil into construction materials, either bricks or cement that will be used perhaps in the foundation of a new Sandy Hook school or to help construct a permanent memorial to the massacre. No decisions have been made yet on a timeline for either of those.
"We did a blessing on it," Moreno said. "The respect and reverence for it was phenomenal. It was like a cremation, a transformation of all this love."
Holly Nelson, 39, of Walla Walla, Wash., sent in hearts made from recycled paper embedded with forget-me-not seeds. She said she was notified that one of the hearts had been chosen for the archive project. She had hoped the seeds might end up in the garden of a victim's family, but she likes the plan Newtown crafted.
"Even if the seeds die in the incineration process, the idea that they are being recycled into something meaningful that pays tribute after this tragedy is very special," she said.