Sunnyside Helps Family of Newtown Shooting Victim

Local Fund-Raiser Aids Fmr. Residents

David and Francine Wheeler were much-loved, highly regarded Sunnyside residents before moving to Newtown, Conn., in 2007. But their new lives were changed forever when their six-year-old son Ben was among the victims in the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings that left 20 young students and six teachers and school officials dead on Dec. 14, 2012.

Benjamin Wheeler

The friends of the Wheeler family in Sunnyside and the greater New York City area will host a benefit to aid the Wheeler Family on Saturday, Feb. 23, from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Sunnyside Community Services Center, 43-31 39th St. in Sunnyside.

Roger Hitts, a friend of the Wheeler family and one of the event organizers, said hopes are high that the benefit will raise thousands of dollars for the Wheeler family, which will go toward financial aid for the family and for the long-term care of their surviving son, nine-year-old Nate.

“None of us will ever forget that horrible, horrible day and what it did to a family very beloved to us all,” Hitts said. “The Wheelers touched all of our lives during their time in Queens through their friendliness and big hearts, and we want to show them they are in our minds and in our own hearts during their time of need.”

The Sunnyside community held a vigil memorializing Ben and other victims of the Sandy Hook massacre shortly after the tragedy. Plans for this second event began to take shape through the aid of SunnyMoms, a group of local mothers who connect online to share everything for parenting tips to recommendations on local businesses, and a group that Francine helped create in 2002.

“It’s going to be a great evening out for everyone who attends,” Hitts said. “Local businesses have aided greatly in the cause, from Sunnyside businesses like the Dog and Duck and Bar 43 to New York institutions like the NewYork Mets and The New York Museum of Natural History, who have donated tickets for auction. There’s going to be live music, food and drink galore, raffles, auctions, and a special children’s area that will have face painting, games and a magic show, so the benefit is geared toward folks bringing the whole family along.”

Wristbands will be sold at $15 for unlimited food or unlimited drinks and $25 for both. Wristbands are $5 for children under six and free to younger children.

“While the reason for the event is, of course, a very sad, heavy-hearted one, the event itself will be merry- no speeches surrounding the events at Sandy Hook,” Hitts said. “It’s a fun night out to honor a family that has meant so much to our community, to show them that we care and that we will never, ever forget their wonderful son Ben and that he will always be in our hearts.”

Even as they continue to deal with their loss, the Wheeler family has been very active in effecting positive change in light of the Sandy Hook tragedy. They have become key members of the Sandy Hook Promise, a pledge to work toward a national dialogue on gun violence, mental health and school safety.

Speaking at the national press conference on Jan. 14 announcing Sandy Hook Promise, David Wheeler said that he and Francine’s goal in the aftermath of losing Ben was to be the best parents possible for surviving son Nate.

But, he added, “What we have really come to realize is that we are not done being the best possible parents we can be for Ben. Not by a very long measure.”

David Wheeler also spoke before the Connecticut Legislature, and he and Francine appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, telling Maddow that he hopes the Sandy Hook Promise moves America forward from the tragedy that befell their community.

“I love the idea that this group has put forward that Sandy Hook and Newtown will be remembered not for the tragedy, but what started here,” he said.

Those who cannot attend the Wheeler Family benefit but wish to contribute can mail donations to: The Ben Wheeler Fund, c/o Newtown Savings Bank, 39 Main St., Newtown, CT 06470. People can also donate securely via PayPal: click on “Transfer” then “Send Money” then use the email address: benwheelerfund@yahoo.com

For more information on the Sunnyside fund-raiser, Hitts can be reached at roghitts@aol.com.

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