Carroll County Times

Sandy Hook victim's godmother organizes fundraiser

ELDERSBURG - Vicki Pellicciotti remembers her godson's boundless energy, his creative spirit, his perfect pitch.

She remembers green was the 6-year-old's favorite color, that he and his older brother were close, so close that sometimes they would sleep in the same bed at night.

"He just moved 1,000 miles per minute," Pellicciotti said. "It was almost like he knew he had to get it all in in a short amount of time."

On Dec. 14, Pellicciotti started receiving text messages from her godson Benjamin Wheeler's mother. Francine Wheeler was worried that her son, who was in his first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary that day, might not be OK.

That evening, Pellicciotti got the call. Ben, 6, was one of the 26 victims of a shooting rampage at the school.

"I just broke down," she said. "I just couldn't believe it. I was numb. It was surreal, and you just can't wrap your head, your brain around that. You just can't believe that happened to someone you know."

Pellicciotti and Francine Wheeler have known each other since they were 10-year-old girls growing up in the same neighborhood in Bucks County, Pa. She's kept in touch - and continues to talk or text daily - with the Wheeler family, composed of Francine, David and their fourth-grade son, Nate.

The news reports that Adam Lanza, 20, had reportedly killed 20 children, six adults, himself and his mother that day hit close to home for Pellicciotti, a substitute teacher and lunchroom monitor at Carrolltowne Elementary School in Eldersburg. It's a massacre that has since sparked a dialogue about gun control and school safety on the national, state and local political stages and in households across the country.

At Elements of Style: Hair Salon and Day Spa in Eldersburg, with the help of owner Paris Cimino-Kaier, Pellicciotti had organized a fundraiser Saturday for the Benjamin Wheeler Fund, which puts money in a bank account for the victim's family. It was a haircut-a-thon. Employees gave free haircuts to children ages 16 and under with a minimum donation of $10 required.

The event's mission was three-fold: to help spur the discussion of safety between parents and children, to help celebrate Ben's life and to raise money for his family, Pellicciotti said.

It was eight weeks in the works. Pellicciotti told Cimino-Kaier several months ago that she'd just returned from Sandy Hook, from her grandson's memorial service.

"It took her about half a second to say I need to do something," Pellicciotti said. "That in and of itself was so moving for someone to be so quick to offer help and support."

Cimino-Kaier said she was in shock that the events of Dec. 14 had touched someone in Carroll County in such a tangible way. She said she wanted to help raise funds because "anything that makes a minute easier" on the Wheelers would be worth it.

On Saturday, hairdressers flitted around the salon wearing T-shirts with a picture of Ben's face in the middle of two green handprints. Dozens of attendees milled about, waiting for haircuts, playing on the moon bounce outside or getting their face painted upstairs. Master Deputy Worthington Washington, of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, had a table with literature about harmful effects of drugs, alcohol, drinking and driving and more.

Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Steve Guthrie kicked off the two-hour event at 3 p.m. with a few words on a new security committee the school system formed in response to the events in Newtown, Conn.

He wanted to ensure that parents knew, he said, that safety is a school system priority.

"I promised Francine and David to spread their most important message," Pellicciotti said, "which is to discuss safety with your children, discuss it with your community, keep it fresh in your minds, don't forget about what happened in Sandy Hook."