DENHAM SPRINGS — A dozen teenagers from Newtown, Connecticut, site of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012 that claimed 26 lives, spent the week of July 23-28 assisting in the restoration of three homes damaged by the record flooding in August of 2016.
The teens are part of Ben’s Lighthouse, a nondenominational organization formed five years ago to honor the memory of Benjamin Wheeler, a victim of the Sandy Hook shooting. Ben’s Lighthouse has sent crews to other areas in the United States over the past several years to assist disaster victims.
Coordinating the Denham Springs effort was Rebecca Cosgrove, who said that the youngsters “have grown richer in many ways from their experience in Louisiana. This is something that they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Cosgrove said Ben’s Lighthouse is a program that connects youths to service and mentoring opportunities.
“Through this program, we have the opportunity to teach young people how to build empathy for others while learning self awareness and making social connections," she said.
“So many people came to Newtown to help our citizens after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary that a group of local citizens decided that it was time to pay that kindness forward, and that’s why Ben’s Lighthouse was started and why we continue to do the work that we do,” she continued.
Cosgrove said Ben’s Lighthouse decided to come to Livingston Parish after learning about the plight of many families and individuals who have not yet recovered from the flood. She worked with a group in New Orleans known as SBP, for the St. Bernard Project, that was formed following Hurricane Katrina. SBP personnel recommended flood recovery in Livingston Parish as a worthwhile project for this year’s efforts from Ben’s Lighthouse.
“We were excited to come down here not only to help those still in need but to allow our young people the opportunity to grow from learning something about the people and culture of this area. The group has thoroughly enjoyed their stay here, and they have made positive contributions,” she said.
The young workers all wore T-shirts with the motto “Helping is Healing” emblazoned on the backs. “That is what we stand for … gaining healing while helping others. We want to shine a light on the darkness that victims of tragedies and natural disasters are feeling,” Cosgrove said.
On Wednesday, four of the teens were working at a home on Judy Street, a street where a number of FEMA trailers are still parked in yards and other houses are still under reconstruction. The homeowner, Oscar Welch, is living with relatives. The teens were assisting in floating drywall that had recently been installed.
Eban Song, a member of the Ben’s Lighthouse team, said he was learning all about drywall and that working on the house was a new and rewarding experience. Busy applying “mud” to a strip of tape that seals the drywall panels was Grant Larson, who said of his experience, “This means a lot to me to be here to help someone out who needs help. After a tragedy, there is a connection with helping others. I have been amazed at the resilience of the homeowners who live here. Despite what they suffered in the flood, the ones we have met are optimistic and determined to restore their homes.”
Alex Futterman, another teenager working on the house, said helping people recover from a serious loss is a privilege. "I believe that it is important to help others. I keep thinking, ‘If this had happened to a member of your family, wouldn’t you want to know that someone is helping them out?’ That’s why we came down here … to help others, and it has been a rewarding experience.”
Another young worker, Erin Mitchell, said, “I’m happy to have been given a chance to help three homeowners in Denham Springs. There are many people here who still need help. We had the opportunity to talk to others in Denham Springs, and we learned just how awful this flood was. My heart goes out to the people who had to live through this. The flood was a lot worse than we heard about on the news in Connecticut, and after visiting here, we know the full scope of what happened.”
The youths were working under the direction of Tom Dickinson, who came from Virginia to help with home recovery through the Fuller Foundation. Dickinson said of the teens who were helping him, “These are great young people. This is the kind of help we need at this time if we are going to get people back in their houses. Just about anyone can learn the basic skills it takes to get a house back together; it just takes willing hands and backs. A little bit of training is all these young people needed, and they were reading to go to work. They are eager to learn and help and I think that what they are doing is just great.”
The Louisiana experience hasn’t been all work and no play for the teenagers. During their time in Louisiana, they were housed at the Rosaryville Spiritual Life Center near Ponchatoula, a sprawling campus in a wooded area. Rosaryville, which hosts summer camps annually, has a swimming pool, lake and extensive play areas. The teens said they enjoyed a meal at Lee’s Drive Inn, a popular eatery in Hammond.
The group made a trip to New Orleans on Tuesday, and all said they were fascinated with the French Quarter. “They had a great time in New Orleans. The music really was a joy and the food was great,” Cosgrove said of the trip.
Cosgrove said she wanted the young workers to have sno-balls, po-boys, gumbo, Abita root beer, Zapp’s potato chips and other foods for which the state is famous.
Futterman said of her time in the Pelican State, “This has been great … getting to meet some local people and having the chance to listen to a different accent. The people here have been so considerate and so nice. When we went to eat Monday night, all 12 of us, we thought it would be a big problem. But the customers were so nice … they moved out of the way to give us the space we needed so we could all eat together. It’s been fun.”
Cosgrove said the young volunteers made the trip at no cost to themselves. Through donations and grants, sufficient funds are raised to sponsor the trips.
“We know tragedy. … Our community had to live through it. By helping others in the ways that we are able, we are experiencing healing. It’s a privilege to be able to give back to others who are also knowing loss, sorrow and heartbreak that a tragedy can cause. It’s our calling, and I think that all who experience helping others are the richer for the experience,” she said.