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Sunnyside raises funds for Newtown victim kin

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Photo gallery

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Jiming Liang watches as her 4-year-old son Finn tests out a prop cell phone. Liang is a former Sunnyside resident and knew the Wheeler family. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Joy Marr dances with 2-year-old Axel during the event. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Levi Hogan, 5, creates a drawing during the fund-raiser. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Monica McShane, 4, works in the children's room. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Rebecca Wilkins talks to a raffle ticket buyer at fundraiser for the family of Newtown shooting victim Benjamin Wheeler. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Quinn O'Sullivan hoists his daughter Helen on his shoulders as Jack McShane lies in his lap. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Jiming Liang holds up her son Finn inside the photo booth. Photo by Christina Santucci

While the Wheelers, a former Sunnyside family whose 6-year-old son Benjamin was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, were not able to attend a fund-raiser for them in the neighborhood where they once lived, hundreds showed up Saturday to donate and have fun.

“I think it’s exactly what we wanted,” said Kim Brown, of Sunnymoms, a Yahoo! group which organized the event.

Held at Sunnyside Community Services, at 43-31 39th St., the benefit for Francine and David Wheeler and their older son, 9-year-old Nate, featured food, music, a photo booth, games for children and raffles for the adults. The event, a hit with both the young and old, provided a table full of juice boxes and pouches in addition to a well-stocked wine bar.

“People have been really generous with volunteering, with donating to the raffle, with food,” said Sunnymom Rebecca Wilkins.

The Wheelers moved from Sunnyside about five years ago to Newtown, Conn., but their former neighbors remember them fondly. Francine Wheeler started Sunnymoms, and when Benjamin was one of the 20 first-grade students at Sandy Hook Elementary murdered by 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza, the Yahoo! group was eager to do something for them.

“The minute we announced what had happened on Sunnymoms, people started asking ‘How can we help?’” Wilkins said.

Brown said she previously had an idea to do an event for the children of the neighborhood and suggested the idea of a benefit to those who kept in contact with the Wheelers.

The Wheeler family did not go to the event, but released a statement saying they were “grateful and deeply moved” by it.

“The love for Ben and the support for our family shown by the Sunnymoms and their families and friends connects us to these important people forever,” the family said.

Roger Hitts, one of the organizers of the event, said the money raised will go to longterm care for the family. He said while the emotional fallout of Benjamin’s death is unprecedented, there is a real financial fallout from the upset work routines that comes from dealing with grief.

“Newtown is a very nice community but it’s a working-class community,” Hitts said. “They need a hand.”

Wilkins said that more than 250 adults and their kids attended the benefit. The organizers did not disclose how much money was raised during the event, but said it was substantial.

Hitts said it was gratifying to see so many young children enjoying the benefit in light of what happened.

“We’re never going to forget young Ben, whose story will always be in our hearts,” Hitts said.

Further donations to the Ben Wheeler Fund can be sent c/o Newtown Savings Bank, 39 Main St., Newtown, CT 06470.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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