For the first months after her daughter’s death, JoAnn Bacon was in a fog. At only six years old, her youngest child went from being a confident, joyful little girl, who preferred wearing her curly red hair in pigtails tied with a pink bow, to the victim of a tragedy that shook the nation. On Dec. 14, 2012, Charlotte Bacon was one of 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School by 20-year-old Adam Lanza.
It wasn’t until Feb. 22, the day that would have been Charlotte’s seventh birthday, that JoAnn and her husband, Joel, began to move from mourning the loss of their daughter to celebrating her life. Their friends had arranged an event in which children would be recognized for small acts of kindness under a program they created in Charlotte's honor called Newtown Kindness.
“It was hard thinking about what her birthday should have been and what it turned into,” JoAnn says. But seeing about 100 people crammed into a room celebrating their daughter had an unexpected effect. “It really did our hearts good. It was a turning point.”
From that moment, the Bacons knew they needed to memorialize their daughter in a way that best represented her short time on earth. They weren’t yet sure how—but they knew it had to involve dogs.
One of Charlotte’s defining personality traits was her deep love of animals, especially dogs. “Charlotte never met an animal she didn't love and since the age of two wanted to be a veterinarian,” her obituary read. JoAnn remembers a routine Charlotte had with their yellow Labrador Retriever, Lily: “Each morning before school, she’d lure Lily into her bedroom and tell her to wait there until she got home. I’d go looking for Lily later and realize she was in Charlotte’s room.” She also enjoyed accompanying Lily to the vet and learning about what the caretakers there do.
Charlotte’s adventures with Lily came alive in a children’s picture book, "Good Dogs, Great Listeners," which JoAnn and Joel published with author Renata Bowers and illustrator Michael Chesworth. The story follows Charlotte, Lily, and a litter of puppies, with illustrations that show Charlotte as her parents remember her, down to the details in her clothes and bedroom. Each copy is wrapped with a single pink bow.
“It was really important for us to capture Charlotte how she was,” JoAnn says. “We didn’t want her to be a face of a tragedy. We wanted her to be remembered for how she lived.”
Meanwhile, their son, Guy, who was 9 at the time of the shootings, was figuring out his own way to honor his sister and cope with his grief. In January, he got on a school bus for the first time since the shootings. When he arrived at Reed Intermediate School, he was greeted by comfort dogs. The handlers carried trading cards for the dogs, and before long Guy was rushing to get to school early so he collect the cards of the dogs visiting that day before they had all been handed out. JoAnn took notice. “What used to be a safe environment had become something very different,” JoAnn says. “But then within months he wanted to get to school early.”
“With the therapy dogs, what it really did is help us bring a sense of normalcy in a time of chaos,” Newtown Kindness board member Ken Murdoch says.
Still, the Bacons didn’t quite grasp the incredible impact the dogs had on Guy until the end of the school year when the handler of a Boston Terrier named Kona contacted JoAnn. Kona and Guy had bonded over the school year, and the handler wanted to see if they could visit during the summer. The realization of how much the therapy dogs had helped Guy heal led to two new projects for the Bacons: Guy publishing a book of his own, "The Dogs of Newtown" (available on Amazon); and the launch of Charlotte’s Litter, a program advocating for therapy dogs in schools and other facilities.
“It’s amazing how all of these elements fell into place,” JoAnn says. “We didn’t have a grand idea. In so many ways, we just feel like Charlotte is guiding us through a process of grieving and honoring her life and our grief.”
Through Charlotte’s Litter, JoAnn works with school administrators to help identify how children could benefit from therapy dogs, from promoting literacy (reading to dogs can help improve confidence and comprehension) to increasing self-esteem, and preventing bullying in the student body.
“We recognized that there doesn’t need to be a mass casualty incident for dogs to be helping kids,” JoAnn says. “Kids are facing loss and trauma in school every day in some ways—some literally, some socially.”
As for their own healing—JoAnn admits it’s not a linear process. “It ebbs and flows,” she says. But she adds that running Charlotte’s Litter has been extremely helpful in the family’s grieving process. “It helps us feel closer to Charlotte and to honor her in a way she would have loved,” she says. The Bacons believe Charlotte would love being a part of Charlotte’s Litter and attending the community events they hold for the organization. In a big way, JoAnn explains, that’s the reason they do it—to continue to feel connected to that little girl with the big heart.
“It allows us to continue to be her parents.”