Rich Elliott: UConn women feel heartbreak of Newtown tragedy
Updated 12:28 am, Wednesday, December 19, 2012
STORRS -- UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma was sitting in his office Friday morning as the news of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown began to surface. Sophomore Kiah Stokes was eating lunch in the dining hall. Senior Kelly Faris, like many of her teammates, was preparing for the start of practice.
It was one of those days, one of those events that will cause people to forever remember exactly where they were and exactly what they were doing when they first heard the news. At first, all three members of the Huskies hoped that it would not be as horrific as it turned out to be. But as we all know their hopes were dashed as 20 children, ages 6 and 7, and six school staffers were shot to death.
"After practice is when I was really told about everything that happened,'' Faris said. "It ruined my day, ruined my week. It's one of those things where I went back and that's all that I could think about. All I could picture in my head was all those kids' faces. And that's what I have passion for is just little kids and that's what I want to work with and to hear something like that it's really devastating.''
Faris does not want to be a teacher, as were 52-year-old Anne Marie Murphy, 30-year-old Lauren Rousseau or 27-year-old Victoria Soto. But being around young kids and finding ways to help them is something that Faris enjoys.
She can envision herself serving as a child life specialist at a hospital, coaching young kids, running her own camp or working with the Special Olympics. Faris talked to her family back home in Indiana about what transpired in Newtown. She talked to other people, too. Everyone had same reaction -- heartbreak.
"It's one of those things that it's hard to put into words,'' Faris said. "I don't think anybody can imagine what those parents are going through. The families and friends. Even for anybody who hasn't been involved, who wasn't affected by it, we're still affected by it just because of how big this thing is. It's pretty sickening.''
Not only was Faris impacted by her love of children, but she and UConn redshirt senior Heather Buck have developed a relationship with Sandy O'Donnell, the marketing director at the Newtown Youth Academy. The players worked at the "Pursuit Beyond" basketball camp at the Newtown Youth Academy Sports & Fitness Center during the summer and fall of 2010.
O'Donnell hosted the Huskies at her home. Faris and Buck remain in contact with her. And O'Donnell attends UConn games. Last Friday, O'Donnell's oldest child, who is now in high school, lost some of her former teachers.
Buck said she sent a text message to O'Donnell once she became aware of the extent of the shooting.
"We're friends with her family, with her kids, with her,'' Buck said. "It's a small community and it's a lot like my town (Stonington). So it's unthinkable. You don't even know what to say about it or what to think about it. But there are a few of us who are still in touch with her and her family. So we were very concerned about them when we first heard.''
Auriemma said that this event has affected his team much more than any other that he can remember since he was hired in 1985. The Huskies have asked him what they can do to help.
For starters, they will wear patches on their jerseys during tonight's game against Oakland at the XL Center (7; SNY) in remembrance of the tragedy. The patch is a rectangle with a green background, a black outline and features the letters "SH" in white.
UConn will also conduct a pre-game ceremony to honor the 26 victims, just as the UConn men's basketball team did Monday before facing Maryland-Eastern Shore at the XL Center. All 11 players and a combined 15 members of the UConn spirit squad, dance team and pep band will hold 26 candles during a 26-second moment of silence.
The children's choir from Redeemer Hill Church in Hartford will perform the national anthem.
Fans are asked to be seated by 6:50 p.m. for the ceremonies.
"It's more of an honor to do something like that,'' Faris said. "It's not about us. It's about making people aware, keeping it out there. So, for us, right now it's an honor to be able to wear something that represents those kids and those teachers who did what they did and went down as heroes.''
The Huskies would like to do more to honor the victims and aid their families and the survivors in the future. Auriemma and his wife, Kathy, donated $80,000 to benefit the newly established Sandy Hook Memorial Scholarship Fund at UConn.
Nothing else is in works at this time. But showing their respect tonight is a nice gesture by the Huskies during this highly emotional time.
"There are 20 parents who are dealing with the fact that they don't have their child anymore,'' Buck said. ``How can anything that you do really make that better? No one can understand that and what they're going through. So you want to find something that maybe I can do that can help them a little bit, even if it's just a little bit to make things a little better for them because even a little better is something.''
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