From Girard College, sending hugs to Newtown

John Romano hugs residents of Newtown, Conn., affected by the Sandy Hook tragedy.
John Romano hugs residents of Newtown, Conn., affected by the Sandy Hook tragedy. (Courtesy of John Romano)
Posted: December 28, 2012

Gabrielle Carter couldn't think of what she wanted for Christmas, so she wrote out a wish for others and placed it carefully on the Girard College tree.

"I would like to give a hug to those families affected by the massacre," wrote Carter, who turns 16 Thursday. The shootings in Newtown, Conn., had been on weighing on her, she explained, and she was sure those people needed comfort more than she needed anything.

Every year, students at the North Philadelphia school for low-income children from single-parent or no-parent homes wish for things - clothes or candy, typically.

Vice principal Ed Gallagher started the tradition two years ago as a way to "help these kids get a little something before we send them home for the break, just in case they don't have a big Christmas at home," science teacher John Romano said.

Gallagher sorts through the wishes, picks some to fulfill, and asks teachers to help. When he saw the list, Romano was struck by Carter's wish. Romano, who lives in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia but hails from New England, wanted to figure out a way to make her holiday dream come true.

Carter, who lives at the boarding school during the week and goes home to the Far Rockaway section of New York City on the weekends and holidays, didn't tell anyone about her wish. It felt private.

"I just thought I should try to give someone else something," she said.

Logistics made it impossible to get Carter to Connecticut in person - but what if Romano hugged her, and then took her hug and personal message to Newtown?

"I think it sounded strange coming from me, because I'm not a hugger, but all I could think about was Gabrielle and her kindness," Romano said. It was important that Gabrielle and other students see him step outside his comfort zone, he said.

So, at an assembly last week in front of Girard's entire upper school, Romano hugged Carter.

"She just tightly embraced me," Romano said. "I just said, 'Gabrielle, you're doing a really selfless thing, and I'm going to do my best to get this up there for you.' "

He wasn't sure how to connect with people affected by the national tragedy, but he had a few ideas - reaching out via his blog, Twitter, Facebook, and a local news site. He relied on family members who still lived in the area to spread the word, too.

Eventually, the call came - meet in the parking lot of Newtown United Methodist Church on Sunday.

Some residents of the town had heard about Romano and Carter's wish, and they were touched. There were a Sandy Hook teacher, an EMT, and a woman who drove many of the murdered students on the school bus.

"It was people saying, 'Please, I'd love to. I'm just a resident, or I knew someone, and I could really use a hug,' " Romano said.

He spent the night at his sister's in New York the night before the meeting. He couldn't sleep.

"I didn't know what to expect upon arrival," Romano wrote on his blog. "I have never been a hugger, never knew how to properly embrace someone so they felt like I cared. The last thing I wanted to do was take the beautiful act of a selfless teenager and ruin it with an awkward embrace."

He didn't have to worry. The six Newtown residents in the church parking lot were hurting but warm, touched by the generosity of a girl who yearned to give them simple comfort.

One of the hug recipients was Becky Virgalla, Sandy Hook's reading specialist. She was attending a meeting in principal Dawn Hochsprung's office when shooter Adam Lanza burst into the school.

"She was tremoring, and you could hear her start crying," Romano said of their hug. "She gripped my shirt, and my back, harder, and I hugged her back. I said, 'Gabrielle Carter sends her support and love.' There was no awkwardness. It was one of the purest emotional moments I've ever experienced."

Romano was close to tears himself. The Newtown residents had even brought gifts for Gabrielle and other Girard students - a warm scarf in Sandy Hook green and white for Carter, her favorite gum, pictures of the town, T-shirts, a knitted shawl.

He even walked to the elementary school with Virgalla and her husband, Bob, an EMT who for hours had sat at his station not knowing whether his wife was alive or dead.

He said he told Becky Virgalla she didn't have to talk about that day, but she did. She described being in Hochsprung's office, then hearing some noise - at first, they thought it was the roof falling down or a lot of folding chairs dropping.

They bolted out of the office, Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach first. After Lanza's bullets hit them, they called to Virgalla: Stay put, hide. She did, and lived.

Romano said he looked at Virgalla, a short, grandmotherly woman, and thought that what she had seen would damage even trained soldiers. And yet, she was most worried about the students who were left, by their emotional scars.

"She works in an environment that has nothing to do with violence, everything to do with being loving and caring," Romano said. "With a TV, you can look away, you can mute it. But being there, there was nothing to do to prevent the pain."

Standing at the police barriers still erected around Sandy Hook Elementary, Romano said, he felt profoundly lucky to be there, to be a teacher, to teach the students he does.

"What I saw was a town ripped apart by the worst of humanity and put back together by the best of humanity," he said. "It was the ugliest and most beautiful place I'd ever been."

Romano was in Newtown for only about two hours. But on the slow walk back to the church parking lot, he said, he told Virgalla how much their hug meant.

"I said, 'This is going to stay with Gabrielle forever and help push her down a good path in life. She will know that there are genuinely good people out there,' " Romano said.

And that felt right.

"At Girard, we're about a rigorous education, but we also focus on producing good citizens," Romano said. "We have so many examples of that, and Gabrielle is one."

As for Carter, at home on break with her mother and sister?

"It touched me," she said simply of Romano's journey. "And they actually gave me gifts? I was so touched."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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