Shelton High classmates show their support for Newtown victim’s father

The Shelton High School Class of 1981 came together Sunday to support a classmate touched by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last December.

Jesse Lewis, son of ’81 SHS graduate Neil Heslin, was among the 20 children and six teachers killed during the Dec. 14, 2012 incident in Newtown.

An event Sunday in Shelton raised funds to start a new scholarship in the name of Jesse for a graduating senior at Shelton High School.

It took place from 1-5 p.m. at the original Danny O’s on River Road, and was attended by many dozens of Heslin’s SHS classmates as well as other friends and supporters.

The June 30 fund-raiser gathering was held on what would have been Jesse’s seventh birthday. It included raffles, live music, presentations and social time.

“I don’t have any words to try to thank them,” Heslin, who lives in Shelton, said toward the end of the event. “The generosity and support — how the class has come together — is just unbelievable. It was an incredible turnout.”

Among the guests were U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Mayor Mark Lauretti, who proclaimed June 30 as “Jesse Lewis Day” in Shelton.

Knew she had to do something

Sarah Adanti, SHS ’81 and one of the event organizers, expressed her gratitude to those who attended.

“Thank you coming out today,” she said. “It was a real privilege to serve on this committee.”

Adanti, who lives in Bloomfield, said when the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred six months ago and she realized one of the victims was the child of a SHS classmate, she knew she had to do something.

“I hope to God someone would do that for me,” she said.

Denise Roy, SHS ’81 and another organizer, said the Class of 1981 had a successful 30th reunion about a year-and--half ago, before the Sandy Hook incident, which attracted about 150 class members.

“Little did we know then...” said Roy, her voice trailing off.

After the shooting, she said, class members got in touch with each other and decided to do something to support Heslin. Roy, who lives in Southington, said Adanti came up with the idea of starting an annual SHS scholarship.

They began planning an event with a few possible dates and approached Heslin. That’s when Heslin told them June 30 was Jesse’s birthday and would be an appropriate day.

“He told us, ‘Jesse was with you when you planned this,’” said Roy, who had been treasurer of her senior class at SHS.

‘You’ve Got a Friend’

The Class of 1981 was large, with almost 500 members. Their class song was “You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor.

The song’s title and message seemed especially pertinent after the Sandy Hook shooting’s impact on a class member.

“It kind of hit us hard,” Roy said.

Debby Stellavato, a longtime teacher at SHS who was at the event, commented on the meaning of that class song. “It symbolizes this class,” Stellavato said. “They are a wonderful group, and I’m happy to be their friend.”

Stellavato was class advisor to the Class of 1981. She retired in 2010 and now lives in Southbury.

Danny Orazietti, owner of Danny O’s, is a SHS Class of 1981 graduate. He donated all the food for Sunday’s event.

Roy said Orazietti was key to the event, closing his business to the public for the afternoon so it could take place there.  “He was so much help,” she said.

“I tried to offer as much assistance as I could,” said Orazietti, recalling how horrific the Sandy Hook incident was and its impact on the region.

“Neil is a good guy,” Orazietti said.

Making a tough day easier

Heslin recalled a familiar question he would ask his late son, on his birthday and on other days.

He would joke with his only child about being unsure of where he got him, and Jesse would always answer with a smile, “Danbury Hospital.”

“It’s a hard day — an emotional day,” Heslin said of Jesse’s seventh birthday. “And the event today made it easier.”

Heslin remembered growing up in Shelton in the mid-1960s to 1970s, as new homes and schools were built around the fast-growing city. His father worked at Sikorsky Aircraft and his mother was a homemaker. Both are now deceased.

“Jesse was my last immediate family,” he said.

‘We all have to help’

Taimon Turner, a college senior from West Hartford, has become friends with Heslin since the shooting. Turner was touched by the tragedy and traveled to Newtown to help, and later got to know Heslin through a social network site.

“Connecticut is my home,” Turner said at the Shelton event. “When tragedy strikes, we all have to help.”

Gilles Rousseau, whose daughter Lauren Rousseau was a teacher who died at Sandy Hook Elementary, also attended the Shelton event.

“I’ve befriended Neil over the last couple of months,” Rousseau said. “We’ve been lobbying together, going to Washington, D.C., New Hampshire and other places.”

Rousseau had another memorial event to attend on the same day. Starbucks in Danbury — where Lauren Rousseau worked part time in addition to teaching — had planned a June 30 event for a scholarship at Danbury High School. Lauren Rousseau was a Danbury High graduate.

Pushing for change

Heslin has been involved in promoting anti-violence and gun control measures since his son’s death, traveling to Washington, D.C. and other locations to make his voice heard.

His involvement in the political process has led to some scrutiny and criticism of him by those who oppose his views.

Heslin said he remains optimistic national legislation will pass in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy. He said some federal legislators who opposed an earlier bill that failed have been hurt politically by their vote, and this makes it more likely Congress will pass a bill in the future.

“There are many changes we need to see,” he said, mentioning the need for background checks on all gun purchases and better ways to identify people who could be potential threats.

Connecticut passed a bill that addressed gun control, school security and mental health issues. Heslin said that law will help but other actions still are needed.

How to help the scholarship

The Valley United Way will oversee the Jesse Lewis Memorial Scholarship, to be given to a SHS graduating senior each year. Event organizers hope to hold a fund-raising event annually.

Those unable to attend the June 30 event but who would like to help can send a contribution to Valley United Way, 8 Huntington St., P.O. Box 142, Shelton, CT 06484, with “Jesse Lewis Scholarship Fund” in the Memo section. All proceeds will go directly to the fund.