December 19, 2012 Edition

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Heather Brand, ALE coordinator at Sloan-Hendrix School and a survivor of the Westside School shooting, organizes stuffed animals donated by co-workers as part of Project Teddy Bear Love.

Brand sharing love,
finding healing

Gretchen Hunt

Sometimes the strangest thing can evoke a memory, and sometimes memories come flooding back for obvious reasons.

For Heather Burnside Brand, ALE (Alternative Learning Environment) coordinator at Sloan-Hendrix School, Friday's tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., brought back a wave of emotions and memories of her own experiences as a young girl during the Westside School tragedy in 1998.

"I'm not sure why this particular shooting has been the hardest," Brand said. "I think it is their ages. I remember how it was for us, and these kids are even younger."

A student in Shannon Wright's class, Brand lost not only her teacher, but also two close friends, Natalie Brooks and Paige Herring, on her 12th birthday.

She said she and two other girls were just exiting the building when one of the other girls had a leg grazed by a bullet.

"We turned and ran back inside and hid in the bathroom," she said.

While attending a candlelight vigil in Jonesboro Monday night, Brand said she couldn't help but think to herself, "Wow, this was us."

Brand said after Friday's tragedy, she shared her personal story with her co-workers.

"Ninety-seven percent of them probably didn't know my story," she said.

Brand asked fellow faculty and staff members to consider donating a stuffed animal to Project Teddy Bear Love, an effort being promoted by Pam Herring, Paige's mother, as well as Meagan Cremeens, a friend and fellow Westside graduate.

"As much as I would love to hop on a plane and go to Connecticut, I can't," Brand said. "This was the least I could do."

Brand said she had said that even if she could just add 10 more bears to the collection she would be pleased. As of Tuesday afternoon the number was at 85.

"We have had an overwhelming response," she said.

Brand said one of the hardest things about the Westside shooting was returning to school and having her friends and teacher not be there.

Brand said she remembers how it felt all those years ago to receive gifts and messages of love from other parts of the country.

"What I remember most about the sad days to follow was all the love we felt from all over the country," she said. "For many days following the shooting, my classmates and I received cards, books, toys, anything to help us keep our minds off the tragic event that happened only a few days earlier."

In addition to the bears that have been collected, messages of love are being sent including a "We're thinking of you" card from one of the Sloan-Hendrix Elementary School classes.

"I've been there and I know how good it felt to feel that love," Brand said. "We also received many teddy bears. In fact, I still have one of the teddy bears that I received and carried to many funerals and vigils."

Brand has been in communication with former teachers, counselors and classmates since Friday's events.

"It's been a healing process for us all over again," she said. "So many emotions come up again. We now all have kids to be worried about."

Sloan-Hendrix Supt. Mitch Walton said he thinks being involved in the project has been a good thing for Brand and other employees at the district.

"Heather loves kids and loves her students and having been connected to Westside and having friends affected by the shooting there, she felt this was a way she could give back and help other people in their time of grief," he said.

A graduate of Williams Baptist College, Brand has been at Sloan-Hendrix since completing her student teaching there in 2008.

She said the faculty and staff at Sloan-Hendrix have really impressed her by getting behind her and supporting her on this project.

"They're helping these kids, but they are also helping me as it has all resurfaced," she said. "I appreciate it so much."

Anyone who would like to assist the community of Newtown, Ct., can contact Tracy Snell at 870-930-7742 regarding how to make a monetary donation.

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