December 22, 2012 8:26:22 PM
NEW YORK -- Imagining the horror for Sandy Hook Elementary students when they walk into their new school for the first time, a Connecticut mom is relying on Chester of the children's classic "The Kissing Hand" and the busy fingers of her fellow knitters to ease their way.
Kim Piscatelli of East Hampton, Conn., hit on the idea of sending a copy of the book for each of the kids and a pair of handmade mittens adorned with a heart in one palm, signifying the reassuring kiss left there by the mother of scared, sad Chester in the story written by Audrey Penn.
Piscatelli, a 40-minute drive from Newtown, sent out a call to her friends, who called on their friends. The project she thought up just Sunday spread quickly on Facebook and websites for knitters and crafters, with the first shipment of books and mittens scheduled to land in Newtown the first week of January.
"I thought, how are those families ever going to get back in a routine of sending their children to school? If there ever was a town that needed to know about that book, it was Newtown," said an overwhelmed Piscatelli, who now has a warehouse stacked with 1,600 copies of the book and plenty of volunteers to sort, pack and ship.
Others are hurriedly making mittens, from California and Canada to Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in time for the start of classes in a once-shuttered school in nearby Monroe. A knitters' group in Georgia pulled an all-night "knitathon" for the cause, Piscatelli said.
The book's publisher, Tanglewood Press, has donated the books, along with enough copies of a sequel dealing with Chester's loss of a playmate for teachers to read aloud.
In "The Kissing Hand," the tearful boy is heading off to school for the first time, but he begs his mother to stay home. She spreads his tiny fingers and kisses him square in the palm and tells him "whenever you feel lonely and need a little loving from home, just press your hand to your cheek and think, 'Mommy loves you."'
The story was first published in 1993 by the Child Welfare League of America, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of agencies and organizations helping children at risk. Penn had tried and failed for years to get her story of Chester published, until a league official heard Penn read it and decided to take it on.
"At first, no bookstore, no wholesaler would carry it," said Peggy Tierney, who worked at the league and took Penn with her after starting Tanglewood. "Then kindergarten teachers discovered it, word spread, people started going into stores trying to find copies, then everyone started carrying it, and by 1999 it was on the New York Times best-seller list."
One of Piscatelli's first stops in getting her mitten project off the ground was to contact Penn, who lives in Durham, N.C. She recalled reading the story to her own three kids when they were younger.
Penn, who lost a brother to drowning when she was 13, signed off on the combined book-mitten project as soon as Piscatelli contacted her.
"When I saw the news, my heart was just torn in half. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't breathe. Enough is enough is enough," the writer said.
Penn's 2009 sequel, called "Chester the Raccoon and the Acorn Full of Memories," has Chester the boy raccoon working through the death of a friend, Skiddil Squirrel, who has an accident. Chester's teacher tells his class Skiddil won't return to school, so Chester and his mother venture to a butterfly pond where the squirrel loved to play to discover some acorns Skiddil left there have sprouted into young trees.
"I've been involved with so many parents who have lost children," Penn said. "They just seem to reach out to me and say we love your book and your book has been a comfort."
The writer hopes the children of Sandy Hook will "get a sense of some kind of security" from the mitten project. "They'll have a way of keeping in tangible touch with someone at home, someone they feel very secure with."
Meantime, Piscatelli and dozens of knitters who have contacted her through the project's Facebook page are pressing on to get the books and mittens in the students' hands. About 600 kids attended Sandy Hook when Lanza opened fire, but Piscatelli plans to share mittens and books with all the schoolchildren of Newtown.
"The original request was for hand-knit mittens with a heart knit in, embroidered on or sewn on," she said. "The reality is we have people sewing polar fleece mittens, mittens made from recycled sweaters, store-bought mittens. Every pair of handmade or store-bought mittens will have a heart sewn on if it isn't there when we receive them."
Piscatelli has heard from other crafters who plan related Kissing Hand projects, including a group of schoolchildren in Mississippi making pillows.
"Everybody wants to help," she said. "Everybody's looking for some way to reach out."
When a company called Oceanhouse Media learned of Piscatelli's idea they released a digital version of "The Kissing Hand" early and free of cost in the iTunes app store. Piscatelli has also heard from the loved ones of grown-up volunteers on the ground in Newtown.
"I got a call from a woman who said my father is with the Red Cross," Piscatelli said. "He's a psychologist and is there now and I really think he needs a pair of Kissing Hand mittens."