Sunnyside hosting benefit for Newtown family

By Rebecca Henely

A social group co-founded by a mother who lost her youngest son in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre is holding a benefit Feb. 23 to help the former Sunnyside family.

“I think people are touched by their story and will come out and support them,” said Roger Hitts, one of the organizers of the event.

Francine and David Wheeler’s son Benjamin, 6, was one of 20 first-grade students killed in the mass murder at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn. Adam Lanza, 20, shot his mother Nancy Dec. 14 before driving to the school in her car armed with two semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle. Six adults were also killed in the carnage before Lanza turned one of the guns on himself.

Francine and David Wheeler moved to Newtown with Benjamin and their older son Nate, 9, in 2007, but before then Francine was an active resident of Sunnyside. She helped form the Yahoo! group Sunnymoms, which is putting on the event to help raise money for Nate and for the family’s household bills as they put their lives back together.

“I think we all knew, at least in the back of our minds, that when the dust cleared immediately from the tragedy that we would do something for the family,” Hitts said.

The benefit will be held Saturday, Feb. 23, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Sunnyside Community Services Center, at 43-31 39th St. Party-goers can pay $25 for a wristband that entitles them to unlimited food or drink and $15 for a wristband for one or the other. Wristbands for children over 6 years old are $5 and free to those younger than 6.

The event also will include live musicians playing songs by the Beatles — Ben’s favorite band — raffles, auctions and children’s activities like face painting, games and a magic show.

Hitts said the event is meant to be light and fun, with no speeches about the tragedy.

“We’re hoping for a great crowd,” he said. “I mean optimistically we’d love to get 500 people to come.”

Community response to the event has so far been positive, Hitts said. Dozens of businesses have donated prizes for the raffles, including one dentist who gave $600 worth of dental work. The New York Mets baseball team and the American Museum of Natural History have donated tickets and passes. Local bars, such as Murphy’s Bar and Bar 43, have donated drinks. Food will be provided by restaurants and Sunnymoms.

Hitts said the Wheelers have given their blessing to the event and may attend. Since their son’s death, they have become part of the Sandy Hook Promise, a group advocating for a national dialogue on gun violence, mental health and safe schools.

“As they’re dealing with their sorrow, they’re looking to effect positive change,” Hitts said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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