The world mourns with Connecticut; gifts pour in

Associated Press
Volunteer Anthony Vessicchio of East Haven, Conn., helps to sort tables full of donated toys at the town hall in Newtown, Conn., Friday, Dec. 21, 2012.   (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — People around the world are grieving with the residents of Newtown over the murders of 26 school children and staff, offering their support by sending toys, money and other gifts.

An outpouring of tens of thousands of teddy bears, Barbie dolls, soccer balls, board games and more has come from toy stores, organizations and individuals worldwide.

"It's their way of grieving. They say, 'I feel so bad, I just want to do something to reach out,'" said Bobbi Veach, who was helping Saturday at Edmond Town Hall, where all of Newtown's children were invited to choose a toy.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre Dec. 14, victims were still being buried Saturday. A service was held in Ogden, Utah, for 6-year-old Emilie Parker. Others were held in Connecticut for 7-year-old Josephine Gay and 6-year-old Ana Marquez-Greene.

The 20-year-old gunman, Adam Lanza, killed his mother earlier across town and took his own life after the school massacre. Police still don't know why he did it.

At religious services Sunday morning in Newtown, church leaders received standing ovations from parishioners they have been helping to cope with the tragedy.

"This has been the worst week of my life," said Monsignor Robert Weiss of the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, which lost eight children and two adults in the massacre. He thanked the community for giving him strength to get through the week filled with funerals.

In a church bulletin, he urged people to go ahead and celebrate Christmas with prayers for hope, healing and peace.

"We know that some hearts in this town will be broken again on Christmas morning when that one special person is not there to open their gifts," he wrote.

The Rev. Kathleen Adams-Shepherd also received an ovation and kisses from a long line of parishioners at Trinity Episcopal Church. She offered a prayer for the 26 victims at the school as well as the gunman and his slain mother, Nancy Lanza.

Millions of dollars have poured into Newton in the aftermath of the tragedy. The United Way of Western Connecticut said the official fund for donations had $2.8 million in it on Saturday. Others sent envelopes stuffed with cash to pay for coffee at the general store, and a shipment of cupcakes arrived from a gourmet bakery in Beverly Hills, California.

The Postal Service reported a six-fold increase in mail in the town and set up a unique post office box to handle it. Some letters were addressed to the "First Responders" or just "The People of Newtown." One card arrived from Georgia addressed to "The families of 6 amazing women and 20 beloved angels." Many contained checks.

"This is just the proof of the love that's in this country," Postmaster Cathy Zieff said.

Peter Leone said he was busy at his Newtown General Store when he got a phone call from a woman in Alaska who wanted to give him her credit card number.

"She said, 'I'm paying for the next $500 of food that goes out your door,'" Leone said. "About a half hour later another gentleman called, I think from the West Coast, and he did the same thing for $2,000."

The basement of the town hall building resembled a toy store, with piles of stuffed animals, dolls, games, and other gifts. They all were inspected and examined by bomb-sniffing dogs. The children could choose whatever they wanted.

Newtown resident Amy Mangold, director of the local Parks and Recreation department, attended with her 12-year-old daughter, Cory. She acknowledged that most attendees could afford to buy their own gifts but said "this means people really care about what's happening here. They know we need comfort and want to heal."

Many people have placed flowers, candles and stuffed animals at makeshift memorials that have popped up all over town. Others are stopping by the Edmond Town Hall to drop off food, toys or cash. About 60,000 teddy bears were donated, said Ann Benoure, a social services caseworker who was working at the town hall.

Tom Mahoney, the building administrator who's in charge of handling gifts, said the town plans to donate whatever is left to shelters or other charities.

In addition to the town's official fund, other private funds have been set up. Former Sandy Hook student Ryan Kraft, who once was Lanza's babysitter, set up a fund with other alumni that has collected almost $150,000. It is earmarked for the Sandy Hook PTA.

Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel is raising money for a memorial to the victims. He said one man wrote a check for $52,000 for the project.

Several colleges, including the University of Connecticut, have set up scholarship funds for Sandy Hook students and relatives of victims.

Isabel Almeida of the local United Way said that while the town is grateful for all the support, it has no more room for gifts. She encouraged people to donate to others in memory of Sandy Hook victims.

"Send those teddy bears to a school in your community or an organization that serves low-income children, who are in need this holiday season, and do it in memory of our children," she said.

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Associated Press writers Brock Vergakis, Christopher Sullivan, Eileen AJ Connelly, Susan Haigh and John Christoffersen contributed to this report.

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