With a brown-eyed, brown-haired boy weighing on her heart and a 14-year-old girl who loved balloons occupying her thoughts, Kelly Anderson decided to organize a run.
The boy, James Mattioli, liked to sing really loud, draw with his big sister and watch dad grill hamburgers. Anderson didn’t know him, but she met his mom once through her best friend. He was only 6 years and 9 months when a gunman shot him dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The girl, Grace Kline, liked music and gym class and balloons. She died Jan. 4 in a house fire in Niskayuna. Anderson didn’t know her either, but her town was pained over the loss, and she wanted Kline’s memory to be honored.
“It just felt like this is enough, this is painful,” said Anderson, recalling the chain of tragic events that prompted her and friend Tina Lee to organize a local Strides for Sandy Hook 5K. “I think people were really heartbroken.”
Memorial 5Ks were held in different communities across the country Saturday to raise money for a playground dedicated to the children, teachers and administrators who died last month in the Sandy Hook carnage. When organizers of the Newtown 5K realized their event had grown too large, they encouraged outside communities to hold their own.
In Niskayuna, the run was also held in honor of Kline, the community’s own child lost to tragedy.
The 5K and subsequent 1-mile walk began at Town Hall, where about 100 people gathered in the lobby to share a moment of silence before hitting the road through Orchard Park.
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, Niskayuna Supervisor Joe Landry and Councilwoman Julie McDonnell showed up to support the event. Others in the community also showed up to support the runners and walkers, handing out coffee and water, or watching their young ones make snow angels, or doling out pink and purple balloons to anyone who crossed the finish line.
“I’m a mother of four and my heart just breaks for the families that lost their loved ones,” said Wendy Cassella, 38, of Niskayuna, breathing hard just minutes after finishing the 5K. “It’s just such a tragedy and there are really no words. So at least by coming out here for this I can help show my support.”
Pink and purple were Kline’s favorite colors. Party City, one of her favorite places, donated 500 balloons in those colors to the event.
People who knew Kline called her “Gracie,” and the employees at Party City fondly recalled her weekly visits to the Niskayuna store.
“She would come in with her father, sometimes just to come and visit us, but mostly because she absolutely loved her balloons,” said Megan Clough, an employee who lives in Schenectady.
Kline would often walk up to the balloon counter and insist on using the helium tank to blow up her own balloons — usually the Spongebob Squarepants ones.
“She would just hang out with us,” said Clough, with a sad smile.
Sometimes that meant just watching as Lori Piyrek organized stock on the shelves.
“She acted like an employee,” said Piyrek, an employee from Amsterdam. “She had her own little name tag, her own little apron and she would walk around with Megan Friday nights.”
Niskayuna Moms on the Run sponsored the race, encouraging families and runners to donate $25 if they could. Anderson was unsure how many donations came in Saturday morning, since the event didn’t require any registration. All proceeds benefited the Newtown memorial, the Niskayuna Fire Department and the Van Antwerp Middle School Best Buddies Program, to which Kline belonged.
“It just felt like something needed to be done so that her short life wasn’t forgotten,” said Anderson. “We’re all just reeling from the last few months, and I had no idea what to expect today.”