Feb. 26, 2013 By Bill Parry
The Sunnyside community raised more than $10,000 on Saturday night for a popular family that lost its youngest member in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre on Dec. 14.
More than 350 residents gathered at the Sunnyside Community Center to raise money for the Ben Wheeler Fund, named after 6-year-old Ben Wheeler, who was among 20 children who were gunned down at school.
Ben’s parents, David and Francine Wheeler, as well as his older brother Nate, had deep community ties, as they had lived in Sunnyside for several years before moving to Newtown, Connecticut.
The organizers charged attendees $25 for an endless supply of food and alcohol that was donated by neighborhood restaurants.
The fundraiser, which went from 5 pm through 9 pm, also featured children’s music, face painting, a magician and a raffle.
Many of the same bars and restaurants that participate in most local charitable events turned out once again. Bar 43, The Dog and Duck, Sidetracks, Butcher Block, Claret Wine Bar, The Copper Kettle and Murphy’s Bar all donated food and/or beverages. Meanwhile, 99 Cent Pizza joined in, too.
Trevor Bowen, a local musician, arranged the bands. There were a lot of Beatles numbers “because they were Ben’s favorite,” Bowen said. A large contingent of children enjoyed what they heard, dancing and singing along all evening.
Kim Brown, an educational consultant who didn’t know the Wheelers personally, was a central figure in organizing the event.
“My daughter is the same age as Ben, so I identified [with them],” she said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it and had to do something.”
Brown– who joined forces with Samantha Felixbrod, Tonia Nelson and Jen Busnel–decided to follow a fundraising formula similar to what a number of Sunnysiders did last fall when they raised funds on behalf of Hurricane Sandy victims. The group Brown assembled approached the bars and restaurants to donate food, like they did for the Sandy fundraiser last year.
Sunnymoms, a parenting network co-founded by Francine Wheeler, also played a role in organizing the fundraiser.
The women spent the last two months planning the event with Rebecca Wilkins, Roger Hitts, Ty Sullivan, and Nick Reiner. Brown said, “We just wanted to show the Wheelers that Sunnyside is thinking of them.”
David and Francine Wheeler, who were not in attendance, sent a message. “We are very grateful and deeply moved [by the fundraiser],” it read, adding, “The love for Ben and the support for our family by the Sunnymoms and their families and friends connect us… forever.”
Roger Hitts, a Wheeler family friend who served as the auctioneer, explained the reason behind the fundraiser. “People have an impression of Newtown as a collection of McMansions and that’s not the case,” he said. “They [the Wheelers] need help and we’re doing anything we can to help them.”
The fundraiser also included an auction where a range of items were sold—from opera tickets and sporting goods to teeth whitening.
The prize that generated the most buzz was two round trip tickets to anywhere in the country, which were donated by Jet Blue.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer auctioned them off for $750 and remarked on Sunnyside’s generosity.
“The thing about our community is when someone says we need help, everyone turns out,” he said.
Kim Brown added that anyone else wanting to donate can send checks to The Ben Wheeler Fund c/o Newtown Savings Bank, 39 Main St. Newtown, Conn. 06470.