Sandy Hook Teacher Pays it Forward

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Sandy Hook Teacher Pays it Forward

On December 14, 2012, an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut saw the face of evil. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza, a troubled young man with a history of mental illness, entered the school and began shooting. By the time the murderous rampage was over, more than twenty people were murdered, including the school’s principal, the school’s psychologist, 4 educators and 20 first grade students.

It is impossible to adequately define the psychological damages to the massacre’s survivors.

Many of the surviving teachers and students have struggled to find their place in their new world. Despite the outpouring of support from around the world, many students and teachers will be dealing with their trauma for years to come. One first grade teacher, Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, is taking her trauma and using it as a motivator to make the world a better place.

Ms. Roig-DeBellis Saves Her Class from a Mad Man

On the morning of December 14, 2012, Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis began her day like every other school day. Her students were seated around her during the “Morning Meeting,” a daily ritual where students and teachers come together to talk about their plans for the day, greet their classmates and share something special.

In hindsight, Roig-DeBellis says that it is good that the shooting happened in the morning, because it meant that her class was already quiet, calm, attentive and gathered together.

When Adam Lanza forcibly entered the Sandy Hook building with his weapons, Roig-DeBellis and her class heard everything. Although they did not yet know what was going on, the first grade teacher was able to quickly act, shutting the lights off in her classroom and ordering her students into a single stall bathroom.

Huddled in the bathroom with her 15 students, Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis was certain that she and her students were going to die. She kept her students quiet and told them all she loved them. When the shooting was over (Adam Lanza committed suicide), 20 first grade students and four of their educators were dead. Roig-DeBellis’ class was alive.

The New Normal

When the Sandy Hook Elementary School students and faculty returned to school following the winter holidays, they had to negotiate a “new normal.” In a new building with increase counseling staff, many survivors struggled with their feelings following the massacre.

Some students were afraid to be at school. Some students were afraid to sleep at night. Some teachers could not handle being alone with their students in the classroom. Most – if not all – teachers and students were displaying signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). To top it all off, district officials and teachers were clashing on what the best way to navigate “the new normal” would be. (Teachers and district officials are unwilling to discuss the specifics of the dispute. However, it is well known that there have been some disagreements between the two groups.)

Through the first terrifying weeks of the new semester, Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis focused on the good things that were happening. From around the world, people were donating things to the school. From stuffed animals and books to the children to electronic whiteboards and other technology items for the teachers, people everywhere did what they could to make the Sandy Hook students and faculty members know that they were loved.

Although Roig-DeBellis and her students greatly enjoyed the gifts and new items, over time, she began to question the system. "We were getting and getting, and that’s great, but if I don’t teach my kids that when you get that you have to give back then I’m missing it here," Roig-DeBellis told In order to teach her students about “giving back,” the class began raising money to fund classrooms in Tennessee and Arizona. Before the end of the 2012-2013 school year, several classrooms had received gifts from Roig-DeBellis’ first grade class.

Paying It Forward

This year, Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis is on sabbatical from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Instead of teaching, she is launching Classes 4 Classes, a non-profit organization that helps classrooms “pay it forward.”

The system is simple; classrooms that need something contact the organization, which will list the need on the website for 60 days. Classes from other schools can go onto the website to see these needs and then fundraise as much as they can. Because more than one classroom can work on the same fundraising project, classrooms can request more expensive items.

The website launched this past month and Roig-DeBellis intends to spend the next year getting the program up and running before returning to teaching at the start of next school year.

Whenever there is a tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it is easy to forget about the good in the world. Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis survived something terrible and elected to look for the positive in life. Although it may take years for the Sandy Hook survivors to begin to heal, Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis is starting on the right foot.

Classes 4 Classes is poised to do quite a bit of good in the world. There are already five “projects” in the works on the website, mostly for schools in Connecticut. Roig-DeBellis hopes that Classes 4 Classes will be a nationwide program by the end of the academic year. If you are interested in donating to one of the Classes 4 Classes projects or if you know of a classroom that could benefit from a project, you can view more information here.