An Evaluator’s Contribution to Sandy Hook

Supporting Healing and Empowerment

On December 14, 2012, a tragedy occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. A strong reaction rippled across the country and, in many cases, this inspired action to build awareness, peace and stronger communities. Within days, the Sandy Hook Healing Project (SHHP), developed by Heather Gunn-Rivera, opened its doors to the teachers, first responders,  families and other members of the community. SHHP is deeply rooted in the needs, support and emotions felt in the aftermath of the event. Heather’s mother Leslie Gunn, an art teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary for over 30 years, was under direct attack during the shooting, where 26 people were killed. Heather felt compelled to respond to her mother’s need for a safe and welcoming place, where she and others could begin to make sense of what had happened to them and what they had witnessed.  Within days, SHHP opened its doors to the teachers, first responders, families and others members of the community.  The intention was to create a safe haven, where the community could begin to process the event by offering services such as massage therapy, Reiki, counseling, and art therapy to help ground minds, body and spirit as they began their healing journey.  SHHP nurtured a space in which the community could heal together.

The work of SHHP continues to evolve in response to the needs of the community. That work has now sparked the development of the Grass Roots Healing Project (GRHP), which will include a number of initiatives, including SHHP. GRHP wants to offer support and healing services that foster a more peaceful and caring world, by assisting communities to recover from and to prevent random acts of violence.

As part of this process, Judy Kallick Russell (an AEC member) and Andrew Russell (Judy’s husband) have been supporting GRHP to develop frameworks for a Theory of Action, Strategic Plan, Business Plan and Operational Model.

To learn more about the Sandy Hook Healing Project, go to:


Judy’s perspective on the evolution of the project

Because of my personal connection with Heather through her business (Grass Roots Fitness Project –, she began to share her ideas about the organization with me. Evaluation, at its best, provides structure and impetus for critical reflection. I believe that setting goals, and mapping out the underlying logic and pathways for achieving this logic, is an essential component in a project’s effectiveness. Incorporating evaluation expertise during the design/development phase of a project helps the implementation be more focused, efficient and successful in achieving its overall vision.

In our first meeting, the core GRHP team had many ideas and activities in mind, and also shared the pressures they face.  Through the process of developing a very basic Theory of Action, the team was  able to organize, focus and ground their powerful ideas into an overarching common vision with shared goals. The process also helped the team to prioritize how it would address and implement these ideas. The core GRHP team plans to create additional Theories of Action for each particular initiative (sub-theories), to clarify their strategy and to show how they will align with the organization’s overall Theory of Action.

So far we have:

  • Collaboratively developed an initial Theory of Action with the core team
  • Joined forces with experts in the development of a Business Plan and Strategic Framework
  • Begun developing lessons learned from Phase 1 of the Sandy Hook Healing Project using qualitative methods to gather data from high school students, service providers, and core team, among other stakeholders


Judy’s Initial Reflections on the Process

Although we are still in the process of developing these frameworks, the following are some initial reflections:

  • When creating an organization in the midst of raw emotions and high intensity, there was and continues to be a natural tension between meeting the urgent, on-going needs of the community and taking time to collectively reflect and develop frameworks for the Theory of Action, strategic plan, etc.
  • With so many demands on the core team, it was important at times to let members use time dedicated to the organization’s strategic development to discuss topics that were tangentially related. Although the connection may not have been clear at first, the opportunity to explore and reflect on ideas openly helped them to refocus and clarified broader points.
  • When you are competent and present in a situation where there is tremendous, immediate need, many will ask for your help with whatever issues arise. Defining a vision/mission helped the team articulate and focus their program strategy and activities based on their overall goals.


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