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Bears For Newtown: Tax Assessor Recalls Gift Influx After Sandy Hook Shooting

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Chris Kelsey was the tax assessor for Newtown, Conn., when 20 children and six staff were fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That was three years ago today. He wanted to do something, so he decided to be the guy who dealt with donations. They came in from all over the world on a scale he could not have imagined - tens of thousands of stuffed animals and other toys. Chris Kelsey is now tax assessor of Middlebury, Conn., and he joins me now. Thanks for being on the program.

CHRIS KELSEY: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: We read on the website thetrace.org, which is dedicated to tracking gun violence and gun policy in the U.S., about the sheer scale of stuff you were dealing with. It filled a 60,000-square foot storage space. What did that look like? What was it like to stand there?

KELSEY: It was crowded. It was roughly an acre and a half. Some of it was palettes stacked on top of palettes, so they were 8 feet tall. There was a almost indescribable amount of stuff.

SHAPIRO: And when you looked at those piles and piles of stuff, this physical expression of people's condolences, how did it feel?

KELSEY: Overwhelming, to say the least.

SHAPIRO: Was it comforting, or did it make the grief worse?

KELSEY: Well, it certainly wasn't comforting for many of us that had to handle it. I think some of the families and especially a lot of the community knew it was - people meant well. And people knew we were in their thoughts, but I think after the first couple months, it was overwhelming for everyone.

SHAPIRO: What was an average day for you like during that time?

KELSEY: For the first couple weeks, it was people driving stuff from across the country I think as far away as Nebraska and Texas. After that, it was the shipments. UPS and the post office kind of delivered all those shipments from all the collection bins from across the country. So it was just an inflow of stuff for a while.

SHAPIRO: And walk us through an average day, what that meant for you.

KELSEY: Well, I would try to get there early to open the building up so that when the volunteers showed up, somebody was there and the lights were on. We had a staging area. We had bomb dogs that went, and the state police made sure everything was safe so there wasn't another problem 'cause there were some scares of that in the beginning. And then one it was staged, then it was sorted. So we had three major areas. We have a school supply area, a toy area and teddy bear area. And everything went to their prospective spots until those were sorted out into smaller boxes.

SHAPIRO: What does the scale of donations tell you? What did it make you feel about the way the country responded to this shooting and what it meant to the rest of the country?

KELSEY: Well, I think it affected everybody. And they tried to show that by doing whatever they could. And a lot of times, that was buying a teddy bear and sending it to Newtown. So you knew we were kind of in everybody's thoughts.

SHAPIRO: What would you have rather they done?

KELSEY: I would much rather they had made some sort of monetary donation. It would still be able to be used. Now that we're three years out - my girlfriend happens to be a counselor in town, and the funding, from what we're told, is running out. So the need now is just as great as it was two-and-a-half- years ago. But the funding for a lot of that help is running out.

SHAPIRO: Chris Kelsey, thank you very much for talking with us.

KELSEY: No problem.

SHAPIRO: Chris Kelsey volunteered to deal with items donated to Sandy Hook Elementary School after the shooting there three years ago today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.