Hoping good can come from grief

Newtown High graduates, now living in Boston, plan a fund-raiser to help their hometown

From left: Will Jacob, Jill Tanner, Pete and Laura Ogerri, Sarah Salbu, Erin Clark, and Eddie Small discussing plans for the fund-raiser at Fenway Park.
From left: Will Jacob, Jill Tanner, Pete and Laura Ogerri, Sarah Salbu, Erin Clark, and Eddie Small discussing plans for the fund-raiser at Fenway Park.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

It’s noontime on a bright winter Saturday, and at Church restaurant in the Fenway, a group of 20-somethings is enjoying Bloody Marys and Screwdrivers and plates of eggs and toast. Around them, other patrons watch basketball on TV, emitting an occasional whoop.

But the seven seated on leather couches near the doorway have spreadsheets and agendas in front of them. They’re here to work.

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“Newtown in Boston” is what these members of Newtown High School Class of 2006 are calling themselves, and they’re planning a March 23 fund-raiser at Fenway Park to benefit their Connecticut hometown, where 26 people were shot to death in a December rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“Although we all currently reside in Boston, we still feel so connected to our hometown and the shooting affected us all very deeply,” says Laura Oggeri, 25, who in November married high school sweetheart Pete Oggeri.

Newtown is where they grew up, where their families live, and where some of their siblings are still in the public schools. The friends had lost touch with one another after high school, but after the massacre, they reconnected on Facebook and decided to do something for the town they love.

In just weeks, the 24- and 25-year-olds have managed to pull off what even the most seasoned event planner would find challenging: They’ve booked the State Street Pavilion and EMC Club at Fenway, they’ve got Samuel Adams beer and food by Aramark for hundreds of guests, the band Flipside, and floral arrangements by Winston Flowers — not to mention big-ticket items for a silent auction — all for free.

A week after the tickets went on sale on their website (www.newtownin
boston.com), they’d sold 220; they’re almost at 250 now. They hope to attract 600 people and, like any millennials worth their iPhones, they’re using social media to promote it. Tickets are $65, and just $45 for those under 21. At their recent meeting, the group decided to offer discounted tickets of $50 to Newtown teachers and first responders.

The event is drawing some Boston pols, including Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor Tom Menino, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray. Laura Oggeri, who attended Boston University, is Murray’s deputy director of communications.

Using everything from parental connections to older NHS alumni — and the weight that the name “Newtown” now carries — the 20-somethings have found widespread support for their cause: raising money for a children’s museum in Newtown.

EverWonder Children’s Museum incorporated as a nonprofit in 2011, and Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung was one of its early supporters. Hochsprung was among the first killed at Sandy Hook as she lunged at gunman Adam Lanza, police said.

The museum, the brainchild of local parents, is still in the fledgling stage, housed in temporary space. The all-volunteer effort hopes to open its first exhibit in April.

“Night in Newtown,” as the fund-raiser has been named, is the largest effort to benefit the museum, with a goal of $26,000. Some of the proceeds will go toward the museum’s permanent home, some to fund operations.

“The museum will celebrate childhood and education and the joy of learning,” says Kristin Chiriatti, president and founder. Her husband, Chris, is also on the board of directors. Their children, ages 6 and 7, lost friends at Sandy Hook. The Chiriattis and others on the board plan to attend the Boston fund-raiser.

In its permanent location, the museum plans to pay tribute to the victims “in a way that is respectful and doesn’t cause grief and anxiety to visitors,” says Chiriatti. “Everyone has been affected in this town. There’s just a fog of sadness here.”

On Jan. 11, after Jill Tanner had returned to Boston from Newtown following Christmas break, she sent Facebook messages to those from her high school class who were living here. Would anyone be interested in doing something for their hurting hometown?

The first response came within 20 minutes, the first meeting a week later, and the group has been together since. Seven of the eight are from the Class of 2006; Allison Jagoe graduated in 2008.

“It was so isolating to be in Boston when all we wanted to do is be at home and support our community,” says Tanner, a nurse who is working on her master’s degree at Northeastern University.

“Honestly,” says Pete Oggeri, “I haven’t talked to any of these people in Boston since high school. Now, I talk to them more than I talk to any other friends. We’re building a huge bond while doing something for a common cause.”

Planning “Night for Newtown” has been healing, those in the group agree. “It’s given me some semblance of comfort in the aftermath of the shootings,” says Eddie Small, a reporter at the Boston Courant. “It’s a chance to reconnect with people from home.”

None of the eight were best friends in Newtown, but they all knew each other. Will Jacob took Erin Clark to the senior prom. Jill Tanner and Laura Schroeder (now Oggeri) played tennis together in elementary school, and Laura and Pete dated in high school. Tanner and Sarah Salbu were co-captains of the NHS tennis team. Also in their class was Ryan Lanza, the older brother of the shooter, but none of them knew him well.

Of the “Newtown in Boston” group, only Pete Oggeri and Eddie Small attended Sandy Hook Elementary. The day after the shooting, Small wrote an essay for TheAtlantic.com headlined: “Did This Really Happen in My Elementary School?”

Of Newtown, he wrote: “It’s a town of about 27,000 people where things don’t stay open past 10 p.m. and a boy digging a big hole is a story worthy of the local paper’s front page.” He added: “I’m sad, confused, infuriated, and I want to do something about it. The problem is, I can’t think of anything that would actually matter.”

Pete Oggeri’s mother was working out with a Sandy Hook parent at a local gym when news of the shootings broke; no victims would be identified for hours. His mother, says Oggeri, was reassuring her frightened friend that all would be OK.

“My mother didn’t find out until the next day that her friend’s son was one of the victims,” says Oggeri, who graduated from Wentworth Institute of Technology and is assistant project engineer at Gilbane Inc.

At first, the Newtown High grads thought they’d do a small event, maybe at a local bar and charge a cover fee. But the project grew as they tapped into resources with deep pockets and good will. Poland Spring offered to underwrite the cost of renting the EMC Club and State Street Pavilion, which the Red Sox are providing at a discounted price. That’s where Jill Tanner’s dad came in; Rick Tanner is vice president of marketing for Nestle Water/Poland Spring.

Laura The event is drawing some Boston pols, including Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor Tom Menino, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray. Laura Oggeri’s father, Robert Schroeder, works for Schlumberger, a global oilfield services provider, which made a donation. The Boston band Flipside, which played at the Ogerris’ wedding, is donating its services; Sam Adams, the beer. Arbella Insurance Foundation is kicking in $9,000. Winston Flowers is donating the floral decorations; Jacquie Wheeler, class of 1977 at Newtown High, works in customer service.

Wheeler has contacted others in her class, and several plan to attend the fund-raiser. “It will be fun with 50-somethings and 20-somethings,” says Wheeler. “I think it’s great they’re doing this. It takes a lot to pull something like this together.”

Wheeler called Jean Fay; they graduated together. Fay, who is a special education aide in Amherst, is also going to the event, and has offered to help however she can. “It’s a hard reason to connect with people, but everyone wants to help,” says Fay

As for the younger generation, Will Jacob, who works at Deloitte consulting, promises that the night will be a fun, not somber, event. “We don’t just want Newtown to be a source of grief and sorrow,” says Jacob, 24, a Bowdoin graduate. “We want this event to be framed in a positive light, that Boston supports us, that somehow this will help heal us, that we will get through this.”

There’s excitement as they discuss the silent auction items, the programs, and who will speak at the event. On to the fun stuff: what to wear. Among the women, there’s talk of black dresses with accents of green and white—the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary.

Jill Tanner, who sent that first e-mail just over two months ago, is happy she did. “I think we’ve found great comfort in this, knowing that while we’re not home in Newtown, we’re not alone in Boston,” she says.