NEWTOWN, Conn. – The Sandy Hook section of Newtown was a gathering place this weekend for hundreds of people drawn to the scene of the recent massacre to share in the community's mourning and come to terms with the shocking school tragedy.
The village's downtown was clogged with traffic Sunday, with license plates from all across New England and beyond.
Residents across Newtown, meanwhile, were seeking to move forward through faith, community and a determination to seize their future. Many have taken advantage of counseling services.
Both groups are trying in their own way to cope with the puzzling Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of 20 children and six adults. Police say the gunman killed his mother before heading to the school and committed suicide afterward.
People with bouquets of flowers, teddy bears and cameras walked along the closed road to the makeshift memorial near the school. Mark Burkhart brought his wife and daughter from Wingdale, N.Y., to pay their respects.
"We felt we had to come here to grieve a little bit," he said. "You find yourself not sure what to do or what to say, so this kind of helps."
Connor Collier, 21, of Newtown, said visitors earlier in the week were mostly with the media. But that changed during the weekend to "just regular people" from as far away as Washington State and Florida.
"Frankly, I like this a lot better. Everybody wants to help," said Collier, who has spent the past week near the village Christmas tree selling green and white bracelets that read, "Angels of Sandy Hook." He said he has raised $40,000 for a fund established for the victims.
A man dressed as Santa greeted visitors Sunday while a group of saxophone players from Newtown High School serenaded the crowd with Christmas carols.
Anne Spillane, 51, of Sandy Hook, drove some of the band members, including her daughter. She said the brother of one band member was killed in the shooting. He was one of several victims the Sillane family knew.
She said she and others in town have been buoyed by the outpouring of support.
A family that lives about three hours away in New Bedford, Mass., came Saturday with a life-sized Santa Claus that held a scroll with the names of all the victims engraved on it, Sillane said.
And a police officer from New Britain gave her a box of homemade Christmas ornaments with the names of each victim on them, Sillane said.
"I gave those to our monsignor, and he's going to give them to the families," she said. "People are just so good. We understand. They just want to do something."
At religious services in Newtown on Sunday, parishioners recognized their church leaders for helping them to cope with the shooting deaths.
After the Sunday service at Newtown's Trinity Episcopal Church, the Rev. Kathleen Adams-Shepherd received hugs and kisses from a long line of parishioners. She choked up as she read the names of the victims and offered a prayer for all of them, including gunman Adam Lanza and his slain mother, Nancy.
Monsignor Robert Weiss of the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church thanked the community for giving him strength to get through a week filled with funerals. St. Rose of Lima lost eight children and two adults in the massacre.
"This has been the worst week of my life," Weiss said.
Deacon Rick Scinto of St. Rose of Lima said church officials will be teamed with professional counselors and therapists to provide assistance.
"I don't see us taking a lead role, but I certainly see us taking a cooperative role in any kind of counseling that they need. We have our niche. We're religious and we can talk about God and how the Lord figures in this whole mess," Scinto said.
To deal with the short-term trauma, the state sent dozens of mental health professionals to Newtown. Sessions were available every day, at a half-dozen locations. Relief also has been provided by therapy and service dogs, massage therapists, acupuncturists and art therapists, from around Connecticut and the nation.
Dennis Stratford, who works for the school district, happened to be making a delivery to Sandy Hook Elementary when the gunman attacked. He saw dead children. He saw the remains of dead children on those who survived. He waited agonizing minutes for his own child to emerge unharmed from the school. Two of his neighbors' children did not.
"I go home and cry every night, and I cry every morning," Stratford said.
He went to one counseling session, but the horrific images remain. What helps more is work: sorting through the warehouses full of gifts, delivering them where they need to go or doing whatever else needs to be done for his town.
"There were nine minutes of evil, and an infinity of goodness after that," Stratford said, sitting on a forklift loaded with gifts. "This is therapy for me."