Teacher drives to Newtown

WARREN – Tracy Gogel said the atmosphere still is one of sadness at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The Harding High School teacher and her mother, a former Connecticut resident, brought Christmas spirit to the small town in the form of “angel boxes” filled with handmade cards, teddy bears, candles, rosaries, candy and other items. Some of the items were purchased by Gogel, and some were donated by local organizations, churches, students and teachers.

They drove up and delivered 25 boxes on Christmas day to the community where 20 children and six adults were killed nearly three weeks ago.

“It was a long drive, but it was well worth it,” she said of the nine-hour trip.

“I just really wanted to do something special, and I also wanted it to come from Warren, to come from a different school where the students are feeling the same pain that the grownups are feeling,” she said.

Gogel, 44, said she took around 100 cards handmade by Harding students in several classes.

“That was the thing that made them cry,” she recalled of the delivery. “They wrote the nicest things you would think, and it was from their heart.”

Other donations she received brought tears to her own eyes, such as a personal rosary from a fellow teacher who had kept the strand for 12 years through a battle with cancer. A rock with inspirational sayings previously kept for 20 years also was passed on to help residents of another state deal with their grief.

“The things that people were doing were just amazing … dropping off money for gas cards and food,” Gogel said.

Gogel and her mother, both of Akron, spent Christmas Eve in the Valley before making the drive on Christmas day, each vehicle filled with boxes.

When they arrived, flags were still being flown at half-staff, and Gogel said many were still holding vigils and praying.

There also were other people with donations, but Gogel didn’t see anyone from out-of-state.

Although they didn’t get to talk to parents of the victims, Gogel said they hugged and talked to neighbors and friends as they lit candles and prayed at the school and the cemetery.

“It was kind of like New Year’s, where you hug everyone. There were so many people,” she recalled. “I just said hi and introduced myself and where I was from.” She said many were surprised that someone drove all the way from Ohio, and many expressed their thanks.

Gogel said she believes in karma, but didn’t expect her good deed to be returned. However, a few days before the trip, she found an envelope taped to her front door that said “Ho Ho Ho. Buy yourself something nice. From Santa Claus.”

“The crazy part is that I was kind of running really tight on money,” she recalled of the $300 surprise, which she used to buy groceries for her family.

“I guess it was a pay-it-forward kind of thing,” she said.

bhazen@tribtoday.com