TOWNSEND -- Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 children and six teachers protecting them, the North Middlesex community is rallying around the devastated town, extending arms of support and a promise that the victims, their families and members of the community will never be forgotten.
Less than a week after the tragedy, nearly two dozen businesses throughout Pepperell and Townsend have put out collection jars, some of them decoupaged with photos of the victims, for donations to be sent to the community.
On Sunday, Pepperell resident and Connecticut native Deb Marciano personally delivered the collected funds to Newtown to be distributed amongst the first responders of the tragedy in the form of gift cards to their local restaurants and businesses.
"Whenever you see something like this, what those police officers had to witness is beyond what our imagination could see," said Marciano. "They're exhausted. What they've been through is so traumatic and they're working 24 hours a day. A gift card for restaurants is perfect because they don't have time to get out and eat."
But the fundraising effort isn't over; businesses are leaving out their collection jars and events to benefit the Newtown community are in the works.
The spur-of-the-moment fundraiser began with a text from Marciano to a friend.
"I was down in Connecticut with my family, and Deb, who I've known for many years, texted me and said 'I can't just sit here and do nothing, would you do something with me?'" said Janice Portlock, an American Cancer Society fundraiser coordinator. "And we just ran with it."
Marciano, whose son told her about the shooting, had been watching the news surrounding the tragedy all day prior to texting Portlock.
"To see this changes my whole perspective on my own personal life and I just thought I have to reach out -- I can't sit and see all these people suffer like this," she said.
Marciano also emailed Pepperell Police Chief David Scott for ideas. Next, she called Bailey's Bar and Grille owner Pam Mariano. Two days after the shooting, the three women, with input from Scott, began planning on how best to extend their support to residents of Newtown.
But what started with the three women has since blossomed into a community effort that could not have been foreseen. By Tuesday, after Portlock canvassed Townsend and Pepperell to spread the word, 23 businesses jumped on board, eager to assist the effort.
"The response was huge. The businesses are committed to doing whatever they have to do," said Marciano. "There are a lot of people who care."
Tracie Ezzio, owner of the Pepperell Family Pharmacy, is one of them.
"This is one of the most horrible, horrible things that could have happened to anyone," said Ezzio. "I wanted to do something. With things like these, you feel helpless. I think it's going to make everyone feel like they're helping."
Already, the community response has been touching.
"I had a young boy who found a couple of dollars on the sidewalk come in and his mother told me he was going to put in the jar. His mother was so proud that that's what he wanted to do," said Ezzio.
Matt Swierk of Harbor Village Cleaner said when he got the message from Portlock about the fundraiser, it was a no-brainer to help out.
"Having two little kids, it definitely touched home. This is something that is affecting everyone in their own different way," he said.
Swierk said he's glad that the fundraisers will be benefiting several groups from the community, including the first responders.
"Everyone is suffering from this," he said.
Residents, too, have been glad to have a way to extend a hand, said Mariano.
"You should see smiles on people's faces when they put money in," she said. "(Newtown residents) are going to feel like they got a hug," she said.
The group is also spreading the word through social media. Portlock recently set up a Facebook account called "Sandy Hook Saints" to bring in more public awareness to the fundraising efforts. By Dec. 20, the profile had 332 friends.
Other fundraisers in the works are a wine-tasting in February and a barn dance in June, among a list of other ideas. And that's just in the short term. Long-term ideas range from setting up scholarship funds to foundations in honor of the victims. But one thing is for sure, said Marciano: The effort isn't going to stop.
"I am vowing that we're just going to continue doing something," she said.