Austin brothers skip Hawaii, offer help in Newtown
If Jim Pennington of Austin hadn’t tweaked his back snowboarding in Colorado, he wouldn’t have been flat on his back in bed in mid-December.
If he hadn’t been laid up, he might not have been locked to the TV, transfixed by the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., on the morning of Dec. 14, when Adam Lanza killed 26 people, 20 of them young children, as well as his mother and himself.
And if his father hadn’t died suddenly of a heart attack a year earlier, less than a year after retiring, the 45-year-old Pennington might not have been ready to reconsider what is real and lasting in this life.
In short, he might not have recognized the opportunity.
“I’d realized we’ve been very blessed. It was always take, take, take,” he said.
“Over the years, I’ve taken and taken and taken from the stream of life,” added his brother, Jason, 40, also of Austin.
So when Jim suddenly called Jason and said he felt compelled to go to Newtown over the Christmas holiday instead of attending the regular family get-together in Hawaii, Jason didn’t think twice. He said yes. They bought their plane tickets.
“To see a town in such hurt and pain — it just compelled us to get up here,” Jim said by phone Tuesday from Newtown.
On the way, “I told my brother, ‘This town might not need our help; they might not want us,’ ” Jim recalled. “We have to be prepared for that.”
As they drove into the postcard New England town on Thursday, they saw a building that said Town Hall and pulled over. It was as if people had been waiting for them. A woman immediately ordered them into an empty basement room to set up banquet tables and prepare for a giant Christmas present bazaar for Sandy Hook’s children.
Since the shooting, the town has been blanketed with gifts — 60,000 stuffed animals from Arkansas, presents delivered from a Cleveland youth group, SUVs filled with toys from upstate New York. A United Way fund has filled up with $3 million. Dozens of volunteers have arrived, pulled to the hamlet by a shared grief.
The brothers worked three days on the gift project. It was mundane and overwhelming, heartwarming and chilling: “A bomb-sniffing dog was used on all the toys that came in,” Jim remembered.
They served meals to local firefighters and first responders. They hugged people they didn’t know.
The community’s return embrace sneaked up on them. Locals recognized and thanked them in restaurants and on the street.
On Sunday, a family invited them to attend church with them. On Christmas Eve, another family invited them into their home for dinner; they even had presents waiting for the two men from Texas.
When they returned to their hotel close to midnight, they found a note that had been slipped under their door. It was an invitation to a Christmas Day dinner. That made four invites in all.
As happens with the best presents, the tables had turned: For the Pennington brothers, a spontaneous trip across the country to soothe a grieving town had become a gift.
“Sometimes we think we’re so important, that we’re going to go help someone,” Jim said. “And God puts people in your life that end up changing you.
“At this point, we don’t have a return ticket.”
Jim Pennington of Austin helps at Edmond Town Hall in Newtown, Conn., Saturday.