www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-hearts-across-america-20121219,0,7104077.story

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Baltimore students make paper hearts for Newtown families

Part of national movement started by school in Montana

By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

7:31 PM EST, December 19, 2012

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As the Newtown, Conn., community looks for comfort in the wake of one of the most deadly school shootings in history, it will be able to tap into the hearts of students in Baltimore City.

Students at Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School have joined a national movement called "Paper Hearts Across America," an initiative that started over construction paper and scissors in the home of a Billings, Mont., family and has sparked a nationwide effort to send millions of hearts to Connecticut.

Though the Baltimore students and their teachers continued to grapple this week with the reasons their colleagues in Connecticut perished, they constructed hearts that offered words of comfort, faith and even their own experiences with tragedy to help the Newtown community mourn.

On Dec. 14, a 20-year-old gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 students ages 6 and 7 and six adults, including teachers and the school's principal.

"Your kids are with God," one of the hearts read.

"Please don't cry," read another.

"I still remember when my cousin passed away," wrote Emmanuel Taybron, 6, a first-grader at the East Baltimore school, who drew his cousin smiling in his casket. "I felt sad. I wish I could make you feel better."

First-grader Trinity Jones, 7, said she wanted the families to know that "I wish their family members could come back and have a second chance. But they are in a very good place right now. And heaven is going to take care of them."

On Monday, the students' teacher, Caitlin Houston, fielded questions from the curious class of 6- and 7-year-olds, who had heard "a bunch of little kids died" and have re-posed the question of "Why?" every day since she explained as best she could that the shooter was "a bad man who was sick with a brain that doesn't work like ours."

Over the weekend, the event haunted the 27-year-old, Connecticut-born educator who came to teach at Dallas F. Nicholas three years ago — particularly the smile of Victoria Soto, the 27-year-old teacher who was killed while attempting to protect as many of her students as possible by hiding them in a closet.

"I'm not saying I could have been her, but I understood her," Houston said through tears. "Selfishly, you think you would run out the door in a situation like that. But really what I would do is stand in front of that door and say, 'You're not coming in here.' They are my babies."

Houston came across "Paper Hearts" on Facebook and knew there was an opportunity for her and her students to have an outlet.

The goal, said "Paper Hearts" organizer Gala Thompson, is to gather about 19 million paper hearts — the number it would take to reach from Billings to Newtown — from across the country to string together and send to the small, grief-stricken town that began burying its loved ones this week.

The initiative was spurred by Thompson's challenge: How to talk to her 5- and 9-year-old daughters about the shooting. After deciding Friday that she wouldn't talk to them at all, she woke up Saturday with a change of heart.

On Saturday, Thompson's family of four sat down to make paper hearts, a prompt for a positive discussion. By Sunday there were 104 and a Facebook page dedicated to the cause as the effort spread by word of mouth.

By Monday, there were more than 1,000, and her daughters' school had participated. By Tuesday, businesses, schools and churches from at least 10 states had signed on to connect with the grief-stricken community.

Never, Thompson said, did she think news would spread from Billings to Baltimore.

"My small dream was maybe get 500 hearts," Thompson said. "Now the dream for this — for this world — is to be connected and be compassionate. And people who want to have a voice, and who want to be able to be a part of this, now can."

The idea to connect the hearts of millions was partly inspired by the documentary "Paper Clips," which follows Tennessee students' lesson on the Holocaust and their quest to gather 6 million paper clips, representing the 6 million Jewish people who died.

In addition to her first-graders, Houston reached out this week to teachers in her building and at other schools, who all began devoting class time to the hearts.

Students who couldn't write signed their fingerprints, traced their hands and decorated with stickers and Ravens logos. The school will send all the hearts they collect to Montana on Friday.

Teachers, who also wrote notes of support, said they felt a greater sense of security in themselves and their love for their students.

"I learned that we are special people, and though we lost six of our colleagues, that's what we do: go above and beyond for our kids," said Dashanique Coleman, whose first- and second-graders also made hearts. "When I came in Monday, I kept staring at them and touching their faces. It's unfathomable."

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG