NEWTOWN -- Drive through Newtown these days and it's just as bucolic, just as small-town, picture-postcard, rural-suburban America as it was on Dec. 13, 2012.
Gone, at least up ‘til now, are the huge crowds, the heavy traffic, the hillsides of angels and the mountains of teddy bears, flowers and other sympathetic memorabilia that poured in from all over the world last winter, by-products of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that etched the town forever into history.
Gone also is Sandy Hook Elementary, demolished this fall behind a tall, screened fence amid tight security.
Work on a new school on the same site, being designed by New Haven architect Barry Svigals, has yet to begin. The surviving Sandy Hook children continue to learn in the borrowed former Chalk Hill School in neighboring Monroe.
The teddy bears -- tons of them -- have been ground into "sacred soil" to be used in some future memorial that a town committee has only just begun to discuss.
But while fewer "We Are Sandy Hook -- We Choose Love" signs and banners may hang and fewer people may wear the green rubber Sandy Hook School sympathy bracelets that once were in every store and on most of the wrists in town, a strong, vibrant thread of Sandy Hook green remains tightly woven into everything in town.
Double stitching weaves around and through the hearts of all Newtowners, wherever they may be -- and all those angels that once dotted the hillsides and the roadside memorials are woven tight in there, as well.
Twenty-six large bronze stars -- currently ringed with green-and-white Christmas lights -- now are mounted on the roof of the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company firehouse at Riverside Road and Dickinson Drive, which used to be the access road to the school.
And for much of this fall, the amazing run of the Newtown High School Nighthawks football team helped lift spirits and divert attention of many in town; the team wore Sandy Hook memorials as part of its uniform.
Both within and far beyond Newtown's borders, an ocean of sympathy remains -- with a tide still so high that Newtown's First Selectwoman Patricia Llodra has publicly implored well-wishers and media to stay away on Saturday's first anniversary of Adam Lanza's rampage and let Newtowners reflect in peace.
Dozens of new organizations and foundations have sprouted and grown to distill whatever good they can from the grimmest of circumstances.
These are among the countless ways that Newtown, once known chiefly for the flagpole at the center of town, and the world have been changed as a result of the tragedy.
Armed with three semi-automatic firearms, Lanza, a 20-year-old whose name many Newtowners still won't utter, began that day one year ago by shooting his mother, Nancy, as she lay in bed. He then drove to the school he once attended and quickly gunned down 20 first-graders and six educators.
Then he shot himself.
Nancy Lanza frequently gets left out of people's counts of the carnage of that day. Virtually no one counts all the way up to 28.
For families, profound changes
While Newtown and its sleepy, frozen-in-time Sandy Hook enclave are still the same beautiful little town they always were, they can't help but feel different.
"In a lot of ways it is the same because you slip into your life's routine..." said Robin Fitzgerald, a self-described "soccer mom" who is one of many who have seen their lives change dramatically over the past year.
"You go to the same grocery store" and still have to take your kids to places they need to go, "so in a lot of ways, I feel like I still have the same life here. But in other ways it's profoundly different," said Fitzgerald, who has a 13-year-old son at Newtown Middle School and a daughter, 16, at Newtown High School.
Soon after the shootings, Fitzgerald and her husband, Kevin, founded the Newtown Volunteer Task Force. Suddenly, she found herself coordinating more than 2,000 volunteers answering phones, matching donors to those in need and writing tens of thousands of thank you notes.
But there are other changes she notices.
"When you hear about a lockdown -- and there was just a lockdown the other day (at University of New Haven) in West Haven -- you zero right in on those things," Fitzgerald said. "You never miss them."
At Newtown's Reed Intermediate School, "there was a backpack left in the lobby the other day," she said. "You know, it's fifth- and sixth-graders -- everybody has a backback. ... But the response is very, very serious.
"Anything about the school building or security ... I think everybody has a shorter fuse," Fitzgerald said.
But despite all that, "It's still a great town to live in here," she said. "We still have great things that are happening here all the time.
"We can't forget and we don't forget. But people have turned from doing regular volunteer work to doing serious things ... like founders of funds," she said. "I think everybody stepped it up a little."
For many of the people touched most closely by the tragedy, including the family members of those who died, everything about their town and their lives is profoundly different.
"People tell me it's supposed to get easier over time," said Leonard Pozner, father of Noah Pozner, the youngest of the 20 children taken that day. "We're waiting for that to happen.
"I mean, the initial shock has worn off," but the pain and the void remain, he said.
"I was living a different life when this happened and now this is a new life; a life without Noah and just adjusting to it," Pozner said.
Not long after the shootings, "we left Newtown," Pozner said. Now, he, his wife, Veronique, and the younger two of Noah's four siblings "live out of state." He did not want to publicly discuss where they moved.
"For us, it definitely is" a good change, he said.
"Noah was my only son and that's a very special thing," he said. Prior to his death, "He had started to become his own person and he really wanted to know who his dad was."
‘More aware of who we are as a community'
For the town's leadership, what happened at Sandy Hook School created a torrent of new challenges that no one in Newtown ever thought they'd face.
"Certainly, on December 13 of 2012, I think we were generally unaware that the world can be a dangerous or unpredictable place," said Llodra. "We knew that there were horrible mass shooting events, but they were always in far-off places."
Now, "we are different in that we are more aware that we are NOT any different," she said. "We are more aware of our vulnerabilities. We are more cautious, more aware, less blase. We're a little more suspicious. ... We're aware that some people may be out to hurt us."
Even a year after what happened, Llodra still spends "at least 40 percent" of her time doing tasks related to what virtually everyone in town simply calls "the tragedy."
"Some days it's 100 percent," she said a few days ago. "Today was 100 percent."
Beyond that, in dealing with one another, "there is less pretense about who we are and we are more aware of who we are as a community," Llodra said.
When someone says they're from Newtown now, "that tells me that we have common ground because we've been through a common experience."
Llodra said she believes that this positive change will be sustainable once all the dust settles.
What hasn't changed about Newtown is that "it's still very family-centric," as it was before the tragedy, she said. The community "is built around kids and schools and parks and recreation."
Overall, "I think our core values haven't changed," Llodra said. "They've been enhanced."
And despite all that happened, "We don't consider ourselves broken," she said, offering a view that contrasts with that of some Newtown religious leaders, including her own pastor. "We don't view ourselves as ‘damaged goods.'"
Not everyone is so sure.
In the days following the shootings and as last Christmas approached, Monsignor Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima, a Roman Catholic church on Church Hill Road that counts Llodra as one of its parishioners, presided over an astounding eight funerals.
Most of them were for children.
Weiss and his fellow clergy, as well as their flock, still are recovering from that -- not all at the same pace -- he said in a recent interview a day or two before a bunch of "No Media -- Police Take Notice" signs went up at various locations around the church's exterior in anticipation of the anniversary.
"I think it's a spectrum," Weiss said. "To be honest, you've got people who are extremely frozen in time ... and simply overcome with grief.
"From that point of view, it's been very sad, very challenging," he said. "I think there's just no script on this."
In Newtown, "There's a brokeness, there's no doubt," he said, offering a view echoed by other clergy in town, including the Rev. Matt Crebbin, pastor of Newtown Congregational Church and coordinator of the Newtown Interfaith Clergy Association.
"I think we are definitely a broken community," said Weiss. "There is a huge sense of sadness here. ... It's very hard."
But "on the positive side ... I've seen a lot of families reprioritizing things to spend more time together," he said.
Personally, "I still break down -- I won't deny it," Weiss said.
Sometimes he's just touched by the things others do to remember those who passed, he said, adding, "It's very touching that people haven't forgotten about us."
More parishioners are coming to Mass -- and while that was quite visible last winter, soon after the tragedy, "it's been sustained" over the course of the year, Weiss said.
As of the week before last, "four of the families" who lost loved ones "are back on a regular basis," he said.
While the outpouring from throughout the world has slowed a bit, "30 Christmas cards from all over the country came in today," Weiss said.
"I think the families" of those who were lost, "some are doing incredible things" to memorialize their children, siblings and parents, he said.
"Doing something for somebody else is so healing, and that's what I feel like I'm doing with my foundation," said Scarlett Lewis, mother of the late Jesse Lewis, in a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Lewis, just one of several Sandy Hook parents trying to transform their sorrow into some sort of good, created the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation in memory of her fallen 6-year-old.
"I think a part of the recovery process is to understand that what happened that terrible day ... is now a part of our lives, and in that regard we're forever changed." said John Reed, the former longtime Newtown superintendent of schools. He came back as interim superintendent following last summer's departure of Superintendent Janet Robinson, who left to take a similar job in Stratford.
The challenge "is to recognize that this is a part of our lives but not let it get in the way of" pursuing happiness and finding the joy in life, Reed said. "You may not understand it, but you have to be able to put it in perspective.
"Obviously, in the school system, what we all crave is the normalcy of routine," he said. "That is what we pursue every day."
Among those in the school system, both as students and faculty and staff, there have been a wide range of reactions over the past year, "all normal," said Reed, who is getting plenty of help from mental health professionals, including those from New Haven's Clifford Beers Clinic, over the past year.
A federal grant is helping to cover the costs.
"Part of my job is to do a lot of validating" so people "accept it as a normal part of the journey," Reed said.
Debra Accomando, who with her husband, Robert, and friend Rebekah Harriman-Stites literally built a new relief organization, My Sandy Hook Family Fund -- specifically to provide relief to the families of the 26 victims -- almost overnight, says a lot has changed for her.
"Despite a will to almost stop time or go back in time -- and I don't know of anyone who doesn't want to go back to Dec. 13, 2012 -- despite our best efforts, time marches us forward," she said.
Because of people's children and the schedule that comes with them, "a lot of the day-to-day has kind of gotten back in step for most people," Accomando said. "At least the semblance of a day-to-day kind of mirrors what it was before.
"But in terms of what's changed, there's nothing that hasn't changed," she said. "There's a spirit, there's a sadness, there's a guilt that's attached to joy. ... And there's a daily -- or even hourly -- remembrance of what the town and what the families are going through."
Not all the changes are bad, either.
Accomando "was never one to take my children for granted ... but I love that I appreciate them even more," she said.
Beyond her immediate family, "I think some relationships are easier to let go if they're not supportive, and I think you appreciate the people who are important in your life even more," she said.
"Some really remarkable relationships have come out of the tragedy," she said.
As part of what her organization does, Accomando has a fair amount of contact with the Sandy Hook families, although she wouldn't go into detail.
While she didn't want to discuss specifics, "There is a remarkable spirit and it's been really humbling to be part of some of those families being able to forge new relationships," she said.
One person who doesn't think Newtown has changed as a result of the tragedy is Eunice Laverty, owner of the Bagel Delight shop, a stone's throw from St. Rose of Lima Church.
Laverty, who counts several of the Sandy Hook families among her customers, said it's pretty much the same place "other than being media shy" and for the fact that "everybody wants to be left alone."
The Sandy Hook families "are some of the most faithful, beautiful people ... and everybody is so concerned about the families," she said.
While there's more to be concerned about in the wake of what happened, Newtown "is the same" as it always has been, Laverty said. "It's just a community of tremendous people, and as we approach the anniversary, everybody is so concerned.
"You don't want to talk" about it, "but don't forget," she said.
Mark Zaretsky is a reporter with the New Haven Register. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.