Newtown responders get ‘Strength for Service’

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Five months ago today, the news from Newtown, Conn., stunned the world. Twenty children and six teachers and administrators had been killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The anguish of the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, is profoundly real for the families of the innocents who died and those who rushed to try to rescue and save them.

Those who rushed in included three members of the Newtown United Methodist Church - Rob Sibley, Ken Carlson and Bob Virgalla. In recognition of their service on Dec. 14, the three received the first printed copies of "Strength for Service to God and Community" during worship April 28. The Commission on United Methodist Men recently published the new book of devotions for first responders.

"There are those who rush toward danger and not away. There are those who look to you to give them guidance and strength," said the Rev. Mel Kawakami, pastor of the Newtown church, as he prayed during the worship service. "Lord, we ask your blessing upon these books and those who are to receive them that they may feel your power and your strength, your renewal in their service to you and to our community."

Receiving the children

"We had a tough time," Carlson said later. He is one of the community's volunteer firefighters, and his wife, Barbara, is the Newtown church secretary. "There are some members (of the fire department) who are still having a difficult time. I was shocked, really. The whole community was shocked... . You just don't think that things like this can happen in this community."

Carlson was returning home from the town landfill on Dec. 14 when "five or six state police cars passed me with the sirens and lights going on, heading towards town. At that point, I didn't have any idea of what was going on. I got down into Sandy Hook center itself and the road was blocked off. I told them that I was a fire department member, and they allowed me to come up."

The fire station had been turned into a command center. Donning his turnout coat, Carlson at first stood outside helping "people who were running, trying to get to the school, which, of course, they weren't allowed to do."

He was told to go inside and receive some of the children coming from the school. "That was quite emotional. I had quite a tough time with that," he said.

A harder time was yet to come.

Carlson had run into the husband of a friend of his daughter inside the station. He was there when the couple learned that their daughter was one of the 20 children who were lost.

"We just hugged each other," he said.

Shock continues

Listen to what they said:

Rob Sibley and Bob Virgalla are fellow "vollies" (volunteer firefighters) to Carlson.

Virgalla's wife, Becky, was in the school on that fateful morning. She is now one of the lead teachers at the relocated Sandy Hook Elementary School, which meets in a building in nearby Monroe, Conn.

Sibley, who works as the deputy director of planning and land use in Newtown, is the assistant director of emergency management.

"There were individuals who had to go into the (school) building to rescue or to protect," Sibley said. "There were first responders who specifically were there for counseling and for literally holding someone up during the telling of the tragic news. There were those who were exposed to a vision that no one should be exposed to."

His wife, Barbara, had arrived near the school as the tragedy was unfolding inside. She and one of the mothers of children inside Sandy Hook found shelter behind a trash bin.

"We're still in shock," Sibley said.

While he has watched "people around me have some very difficult times through natural disasters, fires, accidents," he said, "to have something like 12/14, which is the unimaginable happening, is where you begin to reach out to areas that you didn't know were even there. There are issues you have to deal with when you're dealing with loss and trauma and grief. And so, you're constantly searching."

Church, prayer, community sustain

For Carlson, the source of his strength is clear.

"One of the things that has continually kept me rising rather than falling is the outreach of people in written correspondence or through acts or in prayer."
- Rob Sibley, first responder

"The church ... definitely the church," he said. "I have a great deal of comfort in going to church, just walking up that front aisle. I - it's almost like I want to cry now - I have a good feeling of walking the front aisle into the church."

"One of the things that has continually kept me rising rather than falling is the outreach of people in written correspondence or through acts or in prayer," Sibley said.

Newtown has received more than a million pieces of correspondence since the tragedy. "For two months, we lived in a sea of letters," Sibley said, "anywhere from 10 (thousand) to 15,000 letters would come in daily."

Personal contact from other first responders is also significant.

"I'll never forget this," Sibley said, "a guy from Ladder 3 or 4, which had one of the hardest hits on 9/11, called up - I was answering the phones doing communications. He said, 'Hey, I'm Joey, from Ladder 3 down in Manhattan. I just want you to know that I am thinking of you now. I'm not going to tell you about all your accolades, good job and all that. I know where it is right now. But, in six months, 10 months or 16 months, you're going to be hearing from me. That's when you're going to need it the most. After it all kind of falls away, that's what you're going to need to be able to walk on.'

"It was one of a thousand calls that I took," he said, "but it stuck with me."

Sibley thinks his new "Strength for Service" book "is very much like that phone call. It is natural to call and say, 'We're grieving with you, we feel for you, we wish you strength and we're praying for you.'"

Devotional offers peace

The story of 'Strength for Service'

"Strength for Service to God and Community" is a new edition of a volume originally created in 1942 for military troops.

Since a new, expanded edition became available in 2003, some 500,000 copies have been printed and distributed to members of the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan with the support of the United Methodist Commission on United Methodist Men.

"Strength for Service to God and Community" is for firefighters, police officers, volunteers and first responders. "Thank you for your service," wrote Evan Hunsberger, who produced the 2003 volume as his Eagle Scout project, in the introduction.

"Strength for Service" includes a daily Scripture lesson, story and prayer. As he presented the book to the three, Royston Bailey, president of the United Methodist Men of the New York Annual (regional) Conference, called it "a tool to help the mind, soul and spirit find peace."

Speaking on behalf of Carlson, Virgalla, himself "and the first responders of Newtown," Sibley said, "We appreciate it. We'll use it in service to God and in our calling."

"People are finding faith in ways that they never dreamed they would have," Sibley said later. "I don't think anybody can really draw upon their own individual psyche to be able to deal with this. A lot of times in emergency service, we're told to compartmentalize, do what you need to do and then move on, but that doesn't bode well for later on in life.

"First responders will be receptive to anything that will help them to continue to heal. I can see something like this meaning a lot and becoming dog-eared," he said. "I appreciate this book, this good work, and I look forward to using it to continue to do the thing that I feel I've been called to for the last quarter century, which is to be a resource for those who are in need."

"I have started reading it," said Carlson, a grandfather of 10. "It really gets to me. I never really associated religion with the fire department and how much it can have an impact on you. I really do want to get into it and really read it. Once I have read the book, I want to go over my thoughts with Pastor Mel and just tell him exactly how I feel about it."

He said he was "very touched" that someone would produce a devotional for first responders and then choose some who served in Newtown as the first recipients. "It was a fabulous thing to do."

For Sibley, Carlson and Virgalla, there's "a road of healing" ahead, Sibley said. He called it a journey that "means that one day you will be healed."

Carlson takes comfort knowing "I did what I could ... and I'm dealing with that now the best that I can."

View additional images of the presentation to first responders

*The Rev. Arthur McClanahan is director of communications for the Iowa Annual Conference. A police and fire chaplain for more than three decades, he is a former member of the New York Annual Conference.

News media contact: Kathy Noble, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5475 or [email protected].

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