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Thousands turn out for butterfly party that embodies the kind spirit of its Sandy Hook namesake

Thousands turn out for butterfly party that embodies the kind spirit of its Sandy Hook namesake

To walk through the annual Catherine’s Butterfly Party is to weave through crowds of little girls with streaks of sparkling tinsel in their hair, kids with their faces painted like butterflies and cheetahs and puppies wearing fairy wings and “adopt me” bandanas.

Giggling children reach out to pet kittens, tentatively touch tortoises at a reptile exhibit and pick out their own adoptable stuffed animal as monarch butterflies — named “Catherines’ butterfly” for the day —  float by.

Catherine Violet Hubbard would have celebrated her 18th birthday on Saturday and would be preparing to walk in her high school graduation ceremony this week. Instead she is forever 6 years old — one of 20 first graders killed by a gunman in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012.

On Saturday, when she would have celebrated the milestone of entering adulthood, her mother Jenny Hubbard hosted the annual Catherine’s Butterfly Party honoring her birthday in Newtown. The party, she said, was exactly what Catherine would have wanted if she were still here.

“I don’t even think she could have even imagined this, it is unbelievable, truly,” said Hubbard, looking around at the thousands who came to celebrate with her.

Monarch butterfly to be renamed in honor of animal-loving Sandy Hook victim on 18th birthday

With more than 30 animal rescues adopting out dogs, cats and bunnies in need of homes on the sprawling Fairfield Hills campus, local wildlife rehabilitators, animal care experts and volunteers put on shows and taught curious kids about reptiles, raptors and pet care.

Hubbard said she was in awe of how the community has rallied around her to keep Catherine’s passion for all creatures alive.

‘I’m so fortunate to be among a group of people who are dedicated to Catherine’s spirit,” she said, expressing endless gratitude for her team and volunteers. “When I look around and I just see this is what community means, it’s like the definition of community.”

On Catherine’s birthday this year, the monarch butterfly was renamed “Catherine’s butterfly” in her honor, and partygoers kept an eye out for their vibrant orange wings, snapping photos as part of a fundraiser for the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary.

The dedication was meant to be an embodiment of Catherine’s love and kindness for all living things, as the animal sanctuary founded in her honor continues its work to conserve, protect and create habitats for monarch butterflies.

At the party, Hubbard accepted a congressional citation from Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s office, which praised the animal sanctuary for “serving as a beacon of fostering empathy, nurturing understanding and promoting harmonious coexistence amongst all beings.”

Located on Commerce Road in Newtown, the animal sanctuary is a place where all living things are protected. The idea was inspired by a whisper Catherine once shared to a butterfly in hopes that more butterflies would pay her a visit. “Tell your friends I am kind,” she said.

As rows and rows of tents took over Fairfield Hills for the party filled with critters, flowers, bubbles, stuffed animals, crafts and sparkles, guests were greeted by a large white tent near the entrance that held a large photo of Catherine — her bright orange hair and colorful blue and purple shirt standing out against the bright blue sky.

Rose Moseley, who has lived in Sandy Hook all her life, stopped at the photo and crouched down to whisper her own message to her 8-year-old grandson Jackson, telling him about Catherine.

“I want him to know about her,” she said. “He already knows a little bit about her. He goes to her school now.”

Outside the party entrance, a little girl with blue sparkly butterfly wings painted onto her cheeks reached up to take a free lemonade beside a sign that read “take what you need, give what you can.”

Matilda Feder, 5, gripped tightly to a bag of kettle corn and a small stuffed pony as she said “the wings and the sparkles” were her favorite part of the butterfly covering her cheeks.

Feder’s mother, Marnie Feder, said they moved to Newtown five years ago. Catherine’s sanctuary and party have become a special part of their community.

“We go to the sanctuary and hike around,” she said. “We live in Newtown and we just love to support Catherine Violet Hubbard, it’s just such a phenomenal cause close to Newtown’s heart.”

With tears welling over her eyes, she said she tears up every time she thinks about what the words “Sandy Hook” mean to so many.

She hopes that when people hear “Sandy Hook” they will also think of resilience and community.

“How close this town is after everything that happened is really special,” she said. “These tragedies happen everywhere, unfortunately, but it’s so nice to be in a community that just came together. It’s very special.”

Jenny Hubbard, she said, inspires her more and more each year.

“Every time I see her, she’s just the most amazing person. I don’t know how she does it but it’s just so incredible everything she does for this town,” Feder said.

Erin Cooper, who has known Hubbard since long before the tragedy and knew Catherine, spent Saturday weaving pieces of rainbow tinsel, colorful braids and bright feathers into strands of partygoers’ hair.

“I’ve watched Jenny turn tragedy into triumph,” she said as she clipped in a piece of neon blue tinsel.

While her tent had a long line of little girls waiting to add color to their hair nearly all day, Cooper said she had been looking forward to the event for months and loves seeing the community together to honor Catherine, who she remembers as a huge animal lover.

“I think she’s smiling really big today,” Cooper said.”I think she would love to watch all the kids interacting with the animals and all the joy it brought, because it brought her so much joy.”

At the center of the party, a team of architects showed guests a model that depicts the future of Catherine’s sanctuary. With butterflies filling the garden spaces, the plans for the property echo the spirit of the party.

A library of Catherine’s childhood books, with whimsical touches like a tree growing through the library and flowery lighting fixtures.

A veterinary clinic with housing for animal caretakers, community gardens that will benefit areas impacted by food insecurity, animal paddocks and barns, and canine and feline facilities for any cats and dogs surrendered to the sanctuary, all designed pro-bono by Newtown-based P H Architects.

While sitting on the property about a week before the party, Jenny Hubbard said that the sanctuary space ebs and flows with the needs of those who visit it. Sometimes it’s a calm, contemplative space where she and others come to think, remember and mourn. Other times, the sounds of children’s laughter fill the fields as curious kids ramble off questions, learning about animals, insects and critters of all kinds on field trips and other excursions.

Zuri Epps and her mom Alissa Lyn check out kittens for adoption at Catherine's butterfly party in Newtown on Saturday. (Taylor Hartz/Hartford Courant)
Taylor Hartz/Hartford Courant
Zuri Epps and her mom Alissa Lyn check out kittens for adoption at Catherine’s butterfly party in Newtown on Saturday. (Taylor Hartz/Hartford Courant)

Jenny Hubbard said that when they created the space, they remembered that Catherine wanted all creatures and animals to know that with her, they would be safe.

“We love to have that benchmark of would Catherine love to come to this event? Would Catherine love to come to this program? Would Catherine want to volunteer for something that we were doing? And if the answer is yes, then it’s probably something that we should at least try.”

In all the work she does, Jenny Hubbard said she always centers herself with those questions. Looking around the party on Saturday, she knew Catherine would have loved both her 18th birthday and her sanctuary.

“I think that the sanctuary would be a place, had Catherine survived and the sanctuary was here for another reason, it probably would have been Catherine’s go to place,” Jenny Hubbard said.

“Because I think what we’ve found is it’s just a place where people are accepted for where they’re at, whether they are passionate about animals or determined to protect the environment, or just curious about nature or the animals we’re sharing with them,” she added. “There’s something about the sanctuary that just meets everybody where they’re at.”

She also hopes it’s a safe space for people who might just need a place where they feel welcomed and safe

“If we can reach that kid and have them come to the sanctuary and know that there’s a place for them where they can pursue whatever it is that they love, then possibly we change their trajectory. And if that averts one school shooting, then well done.”

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