The funeral of Josephine Grace Gay was standing room only.
Josephine, who turned 7 on Dec. 11, was a victim of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
On Dec. 14, a 20-year-old man entered the elementary school and opened fire, killing 20 children and six school employees. The day after the shooting, Josephine’s grandmother, Katherine Hartman, left her home in Angola Beach and Estates and headed to Newtown, Conn., to be with her family.
Hartman said the families in Newtown are overwhelmed by the support they have received from across the country. “It’s just absolutely wonderful,” she said. “You can’t believe it.”
Hartman said police in Connecticut are on duty 24 hours a day to shield the victims’ families from the press. Josephine’s family released a written statement to share her story. In the statement, Josephine’s father, Bob Gay, said his daughter inspired everyone she met.
“Joey was autistic and severely apraxic. She could not speak, yet she touched the lives of so many around her: Teachers, therapists, friends, neighbors – all love and cherished her,” Bob Gay wrote. “Her spirit was indomitable. She participated in rigorous therapy and treatment on a daily basis without complaint.”
Josephine and her sisters – 9-year-old Marie and 11-year-old Sophia – often visited their grandmother in Lewes. Hartman said Josephine loved playing with an antique-style slot machine in Hartman’s living room and riding around the neighborhood in a golf cart. “And going to the beach,” Hartman said.
On the cover of Josephine’s funeral program is a picture of the child in her pink bathing suit, smiling over a bucket of sand.
Hartman said she came back from Connecticut on Christmas Eve, just in time for late mass at St. Edmond’s Catholic Church in Rehoboth Beach. After mass, she drove to the Boardwalk to see the wreaths displayed in memory of the victims at Sandy Hook. “It’s such a beautiful display,” she said.
“You can hear about tragedy, but when it hits somebody close by, it really makes a difference,” Hartman said. “That means a whole lot when your community is with you.”
Hartman also said her neighbors have offered support. One neighbor gave her a purple teddy bear – Josephine’s favorite color. Another neighbor brought her lunch. “I’ve got stacks and stacks of mail,” she said. “The community here is just so wonderful.”
Originally from Columbia, Md., Hartman and her husband, Robert, retired from their jobs as teachers and moved to the Cape Region. Years before, Hartman said, her daughter and son-in-law, Michele and Bob Gay, moved to Connecticut for work.
Hartman said her daughter was a teacher but became a full-time mother after her daughters were born.
Josephine’s father also wrote about how the family planned to honor her life. “We will not let this tragedy define her life,” Gay said. Bob and Michele Gay established a fund in Josephine’s name through the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. All proceeds from the fund will be used to help families raising autistic children.
Hartman said it was often difficult for Michele and Bob Gay to get help they needed for Josephine. “They had to put a lot more money into extra services,” she said. “For people who don’t have any money, the children get left by the wayside.”
Hartman said the family is determined to make sure Josephine did not die in vain. “What we’re all hoping is that people will be more aware of special-needs children and be more supportive,” Hartman said. “This was a very beautiful child, and she touched very many people’s lives in her life, and I think she continues to touch people’s lives.”
To donate to Joey’s Fund, go to dougflutiejrfoundation.org or mail a check to “In Memory of Josephine Gay” and mail to The Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, P.O. Box 767, Framingham, MA 01701.