President Lyndon Johnson once said that peace is a journey of a thousand miles and that it must be taken one step at a time.
On Feb. 8, “Ruth the turtle” took the first step and then traveled more than 1,300 miles in the hope of bringing much-needed cheer and peace to the survivors of Sandy Hook Elementary, the site of a devastating school shooting in Connecticut in December that left 20 children and six adults dead. Despite a blizzard in the Northeast and a circuitous route to avoid the storm, she arrived just in time for Valentine’s Day.
“Ruth the turtle,” a fiberglass sculpture of a loggerhead turtle, was part of the “Tales of the Surfside Turtles” public art project that opened in Surfside in January. Eighteen of Ruth’s fellow turtles were painted by South Florida artists and are now located throughout town.
Ruth was being painted in bright hues of red, yellow, white and blue by students at Ruth K. Broad Bay Harbor K-8 Center in Bay Harbor Islands when news of the assault on the Connecticut school occurred.
Over the next few weeks, the students and Surfside commissioners and town officials decided that some sort of healing gesture was necessary.
Through news reports and some research, it was discovered that the students at Sandy Hook Elementary had a real pet turtle named Shelly, a red slider turtle. Shelly was being moved to his new home in the library of the Chalk Hill School in Monroe, Conn., where students of Sandy Hook have been attending classes since the shooting.
A decision was made to donate Ruth, and on Feb. 8, the turtle sculpture was dedicated to Sandy Hook Elementary in a ceremony attended by Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho, Surfside Mayor Daniel Dietch, Surfside commissioners and students of Ruth K. Broad.
“Ruth the turtle” is among several art projects on display in a vacant store in the heart of Newtown. The donated space is a temporary venue for the new HealingNewtown Arts Space. Hundreds of people gathered on Valentine’s Day for the opening of the art gallery and performance-art venue.
Among them was Surfside Mayor Daniel Dietch — who once lived in the same county where Newtown is located — Surfside director of tourism Duncan Tavares and Maggie Vidal-Santos, art teacher at Broad K-8.
“Everyone in that town has lost someone,” Dietch said about the tragedy in Newtown. “Lives have changed. It was very sad to be there, but it felt right to be there.”
Dietch said he felt proud when, during the art venue’s opening ceremonies, Jennifer Johnson, chair of the Newtown Cultural Arts Commission, mentioned Dietch, Tavares and Vidal-Santos in her opening remarks.
“It was amazing. It was a privilege to represent our community there,” Dietch said.
The opening included a dance troupe, jugglers, acrobats, live music, and bells and jewelry handcrafted by children. “It was quite an event,” Dietch said.
The donation of Ruth the turtle is one of many items received by Newtown in an outpouring of support nationally and worldwide.
“In [Newtown’s] old town hall, there were hundreds of letters and posters from around the world,” Dietch said. The new town hall, which is larger, “was filled with boxes of letters that spanned two to three hundred feet. There was a poster from as far away as Liberia. And items from Miami and Fort Lauderdale also were represented.”
Dietch said that when classes resumed for Newtown’s children in their new school, the kids were most concerned about their pet turtle, Shelly.
When the children were introduced to Ruth the turtle, “they accepted her. What it meant to them is beyond words,” Dietch said.