Converted barn at the Audubon Center at Bent of the River. Photo: © Rob Johnson
Yesterday staff members of the Audubon Center at Bent of the River in Southbury, Connecticut, took part in the Christmas Bird Count, as they do every year. But this year, it was nearly impossible to concentrate on the birds. The day before, unimaginable horror struck when gunman Adam Lanza killed 26 people—including 20 children—at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, about five miles from the center, a 700-acre sanctuary with 15 miles of trails that has long been a peaceful retreat for the local community.
“Today is the Christmas Bird Count, and we’re all out there stumbling around, shaken because we know these kids, these are our kids,” says Leslie Kane, director of the center, which offers a nature summer camp and educational programs during the school year for several communities in western Connecticut. “Ken Elkins, my educator, called me up and said ‘I’m sitting in my car, trying to count birds, and I can’t stop staring up the road, to the hill where the school is.”
“These are the kids that we’ve been reaching out to, trying to get to fall in love with nature,” says Kane. “It’s a slow-motion nightmare. We’re numb. We’re overwhelmed and saddened beyond belief.”
The names of the victims hadn’t been released when I spoke with Kane yesterday, but she said that a quick look at their records showed that in the last 12 months, 14 families from the Sandy Hook area had sent their children to the center’s camps. Additionally, many of the scout troops the center runs programs for are from Sandy Hook and Newtown.
“We serve a number of towns in the area,” says Kane. “The kids who come to our camp all know kids from Newtown, so everyone is affected. We’re very concerned about our campers and our members, not just in Newtown, but also in larger community. We want to do everything we can to help.”
Kane says the center will continue to remain open and be available for families and friends as a gathering place. She’s looking into bringing in a grief counselor, and launching a special camp if school is cancelled so that parents have a safe place to leave their children during the workday.
The center has served as just such a sanctuary during several recent disasters. After a 500-year-flood last March, a snowstorm that knocked out power last year, and most recently Hurricane Sandy, the staff opened the center, which is located in a remodeled historic barn overlooking a river. “In these situations, whenever we have power, heat, and staff, and school is closed, we try to open up and have camp so that parents have a safe place to send their kids,” she says. “It’s not a daycare, we offer educational programs from 9-4, though we’re very flexible with the hours.”
Kane says her staff will do everything they can to support the community, and not just in the short term. “As we go forward, as our community deals with long-term grief, our concern will be continuing to provide sanctuary for our members and their children. We want it to be a second home where families can come and relax.”