Feature by Jeff Commings
TUCSON, Arizona, January 11. JEANNETTE Marè knows a lot about losing a loved one and the grief that takes over. In March 2002, her two-year-old son Ben died after a virus caused his windpipe to swell close suddenly, leaving behind a family whose mourning was difficult to get over.
On the first anniversary of Ben's death, Marè gathered the family to create wind chimes, an activity that helped the family assuage their grief through a communal activity and launched a phenomenon that would bring symbol of hope and love to others suffering from loss across the country. Ten years later, the Ben's Bell Project is helping communities across the United States move on from a major loss, and this week, the project lent its support to the grieving town of Newton, Conn., after the mass shooting that left 26 dead.
As she and others who volunteer their time do when they are on a Ben's Bells mission, the purpose was to hang bells somewhere in the community for people to find. Many hung on a tree. Others on a lamppost. A couple on car doors. In all, 1,050 bells peppered the small town, the sounds of their ringing floating through the air whenever a breeze passed by. The bells contain messages of hope for the person or persons that find them, which Marè said is more significant than the wind chime itself.
"They (Ben's Bells) become symbolic of this idea that we are in this together," Marè said. "They are not supposed to make someone better, but remind them that they are supported. Ten people usually make a bell, and the energy and the love and the message that goes into it is what it's about."
Marè, a member of United States Masters Swimming and former swim coach, has brought Ben's Bells to other cities dealing with tragedy, most notably New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks, New Orleans after the damage from Hurricane Katrina and her hometown of Tucson after the shooting that killed several and critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last year. Marè had never distributed bells in a town besides Tucson that was still visibly shaken by tragedy, which made the reality of the need for the Ben's Bell Project to descend on Newtown more striking.
"The memorials had been taken down and the people were faced with going back to their lives, and their emotions were still raw," Marè said. "It felt like sacred ground and sacred space, so we were very aware of being respectful of people's privacy and people's need to be left alone."
The popularity of Ben's Bells was so far-reaching that Mar? was asked by Newtown residents who had heard of her efforts to come and do what she could to help the community. As the group was leaving, Marè said she learned of people who were becoming obsessive about finding a bell.
"It became a game and it made people excited to be outside after hiding for three weeks," Marè said.
In the days since the first bell was placed in Newtown, Marè has received numerous messages of thanks from residents who have found the bells.
One resident wrote: I just found a Ben's Bell in Newtown, CT. I was profoundly touched and amazed and grateful for this miraculous gift of kindness and hope. I was on my way to an appointment that caused me trepidation even as I practiced breathing and saying positive affirmations. When I read your note I was filled with reverence as a wave of kindness quite palpably washed over me. It is an unusually warm and sunny day here for January in CT, and it felt as though Ben's Bells even had the power to change the weather!
The volunteers took some time on Tuesday to pause and commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Tucson shootings with a group bell ringing, adding more significance to the communal aspect of the project.
Marè had a swimming celebrity with her during the week in Connecticut. Crissy (Ahmann) Perham, a 1992 Olympic medalist, traveled from Alexandria, Va., to participate as a first-time "beller," and was humbled by the experience.
"When I saw that Jeannette and Ben's Bells would be in Newtown, I knew that I had to be there," Perham said. "I'm proud of being a small part of something very important and much bigger than me. Sometimes it seems as if the small things don't mean much, but a whole bunch of small can make something big and meaningful."
Other members of the swimming community have reached out to help the residents of Newton recently. Olympian Josh Davis helped bring four other Olympians to nearby New Haven last Sunday for a charity swim clinic that helped honor a fallen teammate, while Bridgewater State University and Elms College on Wednesday wore special swim caps in their dual meet to commemorate the victims.
Marè said she is already planning to return to Newtown to help the community start a Ben's Bells Project there, as a way to continue the motto of spreading kindness where it is most needed.
"We don't think our job is to fix anybody or to make the pain go away," she said. "The process of sitting down and making something as a community is what is so important."