Sunnyside Remembers Slain Boy
By Megan Montalvo
When a lone gunman took the lives of 20 little children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Dec. 14, no one could imagine the tragedy would hit so close to home in Sunnyside.
|More than 200 people attended a candlelight vigil in December in honor Benjamin Wheeler, a victim of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy and former Sunnyside resident. A group of neighborhood parents have planned a fundraiser to help the Wheeler family.
Photo by Ira Cohen
Within days of the incident, locals worked together to hold a candlelight vigil for the Wheelers, a former Sunnyside family who lost their 6-year-old son, Ben, in the shooting.
Among the 200-plus residents present at the vigil was Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who said that before the Wheelers moved to Newtown, Ben’s mother, Francine, was an active member of Sunnyside Gardens Park, and Roger Hitts, a close friend of the family.
“The Wheelers are such good people,” Hitts said. “It was absolutely devastating to hear about the loss of Ben.”
According to Hitts, the first time he and his wife had met the Wheelers was in Sunnyside Gardens Park. After noticing that the Wheelers’ eldest son, Nate, who is now age 9, were close in age to his daughter, Hitts said they became close friends.
“Our kids grew up together,” he said. “Dave and Francine were and are still good friends. We helped plan Ben’s baby shower, and we went to his funeral. We just love them so much.”
Though the family left the neighborhood for Newtown when Ben was 7 months old, the bond they shared with the community never wavered.
Sunnymoms, a group of young neighborhood mothers who regularly meet for celebrations and play dates, was founded by Francine Wheeler and still operates to this day through local parents, such as Hitts and his wife.
In an effort to help the Wheelers recover from the tragedy, Hitts said that he plans to hold a fundraiser wherein all proceeds will be given to the Ben Wheeler Fund.
The event has been scheduled for Feb. 23, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Sunnyside Community Services, located at 43-31 39th St.
In addition to featuring a rotation of local bands playing songs by the Beatles, Ben’s favorite band, the evening lineup will also include food, drinks, a raffle, a magic show and face-painting.
“What happened to Ben was tragic,” Hitts said. “By holding a fundraiser in his honor, we are really trying to remember the joy he brought to so many people while helping his family recover from such a sad loss. We will never forget Ben.”
For those who are interested in attending the fundraiser, wristbands for food and drinks will cost $15 each, and a wristband for both will be discounted at $25. Children under the age of 6 are free, and the cost for children 6 and older is $5. To learn more, email Kim Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.facebook.com/BenjaminWheelerFund.
Reach Reporter Megan Montalvo at (718) 357-7400 Ext. 128 or email@example.com.