The community that gathered Monday to celebrate the annual Labor Day parade used words like “strength” and “resilience” to describe the atmosphere.
Some called it a turning point for Newtown, where 20 schoolchildren and six adults were fatally shot in December. Others said it was simply an opportunity to show their support for the town and one another.
Though the parade has brought residents together since 1962, some in attendance Monday said it took on new meaning this time around.
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Cheryl Stenz, whose son, Jack, is a fifth-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School, said it was the first time since the tragedy that “the whole community has come together.”
“I haven’t met anybody who’s backed away from being proud to be here,” said Stenz, who watched the parade go by on Main Street. “Nobody’s afraid to say they’re from Newtown. Everybody is in their own place of healing.”
Jennifer Zupan, who moved to Newtown not long before the shootings, said the parade was a happy occasion that the community could rally around.
“It’s upbeat, which is something this town needs,” she said Monday. The event is also a chance for Newtown to be recognized for something beyond the shootings, she said.
“It’s a huge part of it, that we’re not known just for what happened on Dec. 14,” Zupan said. “We’re known for so much more. The people, the neighborhood — that’s what drew us here.”
More than 100 children and parents from Sandy Hook Elementary School marched in the parade.
Many spectators wore black T-shirts that read “We are Newtown. 12.14.12.” Hundreds held green and white balloons — the elementary school’s colors.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and other politicians also walked in the parade, which stepped off on Main Street Monday morning and ended not far from Hawley Elementary School.
The event had its traditional musicians, twirlers and floats. But there were also gentle reminders of the tragedy and the support that followed — from the charities that walked the parade route to the comfort dogs that mingled with the crowd.
“It’s very emotional for me today,” Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llodra said. “There are benchmarks we measure our progress against. This is one of them.
“We have gone through a tragic event together and we will recover together.”
Watching the first responders and police march in the parade this year was especially touching, she said, because of their role in the aftermath of the shootings.
Blumenthal said he has attended the Newtown parade every year for more than two decades. He said spectators seemed “more animated and spirited” this year.
Police could not give an estimate for how many attended Monday, saying only that “thousands” watched the parade.
“There was a powerful, palpable difference,” Blumenthal said. “The message today was strength and resilience. Newtown showed that it will be neither defeated nor defined by tragedy.”
Since December, some residents have put their homes up for sale, said Courtney Schroeder, who moved to Sandy Hook in May 2012. But those who have stayed put are “like a family,” she said.
“In my mind it made the town so much tighter and closer,” Schroeder said Monday. “It’s an amazing place to live. Everybody supports everybody here.”
Though the past eight months have been “a roller coaster” for residents, Zupan said, Monday was another chance for the community to show its resolve.
“This is a town that’s turning a corner,” she said. “We’re going from a struggle to a future.”
-text by Jenna Carlesso, Hartford Courant