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10 Lovely Stories of Kindness from Newtown (And How You Can Still Help)

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It's been nearly a week since the massacre in Newtown, and Ann Curry's #26acts campaign continues to zoom around the internet. Thousands of people have committed to doing small kindnesses in honor of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As people from across the country (and the world) report on their acts of kindness, we decided to talk to the middlemen: people who are helping make those acts happen for the people of Newtown by taking donations, facilitating deliveries, and providing services to the town's families. Here are some of their stories, and how you can help, too.

1. Coffee for Everyone

Tom Cavanaugh is a 911 dispatcher in Northridge, CA. On Monday morning, he called Newtown General Store to donate 100 cups of coffee to residents of Newtown. After he tweeted the General Store's phone number, manager Peter Leone says that calls for donations came flooding in and haven't let up. "One person sent a food platter to the funeral home staff," and another ordered 600 teddy bears — one for the desk of each student at Sandy Hook Elementary for when classes resume in January. "It's like a 180 from the way people felt last week after the tragedy. Our hearts are so full."

Leone says that he thinks the town needs prayer the most right now, but if you'd like to help in a tangible way, he suggests ordering giftcards: "We can take care of them quickly, and people can use them at their convenience for anything they need."

To donate a Newtown General Store giftcard, call the store directly at 203-426-9901.

2. Make a Winter Wonderland

One way the Connecticut PTSA is helping students in the wake of the school shooting relies entirely on the assistance of generous and crafty donors: they're transforming Sandy Hook Elementary into a Winter Wonderland for returning students. So far, hundreds of handmade snowflakes in every shape and size have arrived at the state's PTSA office, but they're taking them all through January 12. Hundreds of updates about the project are floating around Twitter, with classrooms and parents organizing mass craft projects.

Making a paper snowflake is a very low-cost but significant gesture, and according to Connecticut PTSA President-Elect Don Romoser, this along with local donations for the coin drive are the most important to the school right now. "Current needs are being very well met," he said this morning, thanks to donations of supplies and cards of condolence coming in, so "the community is asking for monetary donations to assist with future needs and needs that are still unidentified." The funds donated to Connecticut's PTA will be "managed by parents in the Sandy Hook area as they deem necessary."

For more information on the Snowflakes for Sandy Hook project or to make a monetary donation to the Connecticut PTSA, visit ctpta.org or call 203-281-6617.

3. "Meals and goodies for anyone in need"

Image credit: DOrazio Sisters Bakery

In response to Ann Curry's call for random acts of kindness, one woman said she'd made a $50 donation to DOrazio Sisters Bakery, a local business in Newtown that deals in Italian sweets and dinners. Whether that tweet began the flood of donations or not is debatable, but co-owner Jojo DOrazio says the store received — and is still receiving — an incredible amount of money for food to be delivered to the families of Sandy Hook victims, first responders, and staff and volunteers at various local groups. "It's overwhelming," she said; the store took in "a couple thousand dollars just yesterday" and the donations are "still coming every minute." Those donations will be put to good use, too; the DOrazio sisters say they'll "keep going until the money runs out, probably in January or February."

DOrazio Sisters Bakery will continue accepting donations and providing "meals and goodies for anyone in need" as long as there's money coming in. You can help by donating a dollar or one hundred dollars, or anything between or beyond, to provide food for area families.

4. Security Blankets

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Project Linus is a beautiful charity that donates handmade blankets to children in need. The blankets themselves are usually donations from warm-hearted knitters and quilters, and dozens of people have tweeted about their donations to the project. But they aren't the only few; a Project Linus representative told me that the incoming blanket donations were so vast and immediate that there is no longer a need for blankets in Newtown — by Monday, more than 800 children had received a handmade gift from the charity "because the donations came in so fast, we were already there."

However, don't let that dissuade you from being involved. Project Linus, according to their rep, "always falls short on monetary donations," which allow chapters to "ship the blankets to children and supplies to areas in need." If you would like to help Project Linus with shipping and delivery costs, you can make a donation on the organization's website. And if you would like to send a handmade blanket to any other chapter, those donations are always welcome, as well.

5. Give Time

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In addition to all the monetary donations for goods in Newtown, many of the #26acts involved offering personal time as the town struggles to meet ongoing grief counseling efforts. The need for professional support will "extend well beyond January" when children return to school, and can be "supplemented by monetary donations," but will ultimately require feet on the ground, says a representative from Danbury Hospital Foundation Office. To offer your time or to sponsor the foundation, visit Danbury Hospital's site or call 203.739.7227.

6. Make Connections

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The needs of the Newtown community are varied and complex, and many may be as yet unidentified. While the local police station has "rooms full of teddy bears" and as each of these businesses work to fulfill the needs of Newtown residents, Newtown Parent Connection, the town's family services organization, is working in partnership with other local businesses toward naming and managing the rest. Assistance is being provided in every conceivable way through Parent Connections and their partners to grieving families and residents, an effort that requires both funding and volunteerism. As Parent Connection donations come in, a partner (who asked not to be identified) says "[they]'re earmarking funds for when children return to school in January, and in the spring we're planning to do something for the surviving siblings."

To assist with ongoing efforts in Newtown, the local toy store is donating 20% of their profits to Parent Connection, and 100% of that organization's funding goes directly into community efforts. For more info, visit the Newtown Parent Connection website or call 203.270.1600.

7. Send Words

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You probably haven't heard of Evergram, a startup that launched officially on November 1, 2012. The service sends secure, private messages (text, video or audio) to a chosen recipient at a later date. Evergram co-founder and Chief Product Officer Jeff Caden explains it this way: "When you disrupt time, in essence, by sending a message in the future, a lot of the same behaviors that we see in letter-writing — the tone and level of connectedness — are enhanced in a way you don't see in social media and the like." An Evergram campaign to collect messages of condolence for Newtown residents was initiated this week, and Caden says around 4,000 Evergrams have already been banked for Newtown families. Around 10% of those who sent a message also went on to make a donation through the Evergram site. (In a follow-up email, Caden says that in addition to the official Sandy Hook page, "at least one of the families has created their own Evergram for their close family and friends, which has also garnered an additional 1500+ messages of support and love.")

Though a letter from a stranger may seem a small gesture, Caden hopes the nature of Evergram's service will affect change, and not just in Newtown: "Our hope is that in a very small way that this may help over time to console some of the families that are going through so much grief right now, and in some ways to help the rest of our society help process the same grief and outrage that's associated with this tragedy. That's really our hope. In our own way, we're just doing what we can, just like everyone else."

You can send your own message, and make a donation if you'd like, at Evergram's dedicated Sandy Hook page.

8. A Safe Zone

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Save the Children, an independent organization that partners with local communities to provide aid and relief to children in need, set up a Child Friendly Space in a Newtown intermediate school after the group was called in by the American Red Cross. A representative says that this week the Space has provided at least 100 children with "a sort of safety zone for the kids, where they can play or draw or talk, or whatever they need to do." The service offers counseling for children and adults, and offers tips for grief counseling on their website for anyone in need.

You can help Save the Children provide continued efforts in Newtown and in needy cities everywhere by donating time or money to the foundation.

9. Give Blood

In a brief chat with a woman at the American Red Cross this afternoon, I learned that many hundreds of units of blood and plasma have been donated in drives dedicated to Newtown families from all across the country. "It was quick," she said. "The calls started coming in as the news was breaking. People were so eager to help." While Newtown's needs have been met (and far exceeded), a blood donation to the ARC is always useful and can help in ways money can't. If you're interested in setting up your own drive or would like to donate, she says "We always need donations. Call your local chapter and ask them what they need most."

10. Focus on the Families

Every person I spoke to over the last 12 hours has made it a point to focus their energy on the survivors, on the community at large, and on bringing positive efforts into the fold. Not a single mention was made of the shooter or political reform. As Peter Leone told me, "The town is a very tight-knit community ... and the people are very family-oriented, there are a lot of kids in the town, and we all just hope we're going to get through this. Especially with Christmas and the holidays so close."

As Tom Cavanaugh, the man who donated 100 cups of coffee, said in his interview, it's time for the town to heal; "we'll take care of the rest." The resources listed above can help the rest of us keep up with what Newtown needs, and if we all do one small kindness, we can make sure that those needs are met.
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If you're participating in #26acts or have been the recipient of a random act of kindness this week, please share your story in the comments!

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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