Catherine Violet Hubbard was one of the 20 children killed along with six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
In the wake of this tragedy, Catherine’s parents and community committed themselves to honoring the first grader’s compassionate spirit by building a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center in her name. The Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary is a testament to healing, and a working wish to reaffirm that her life was not lost in vain.
“If a human being can understand and appreciate that the animals in their care are important and need us, we can be that kind and gentle spirit like Catherine was,” her mother, Jenny Hubbard, tells PEOPLE.
As the Catherine Violet Hubbard Foundation (CVHF) president, Jenny and her husband Matt’s vision for the 34-acre preserve in Newtown, Connecticut, has swiftly taken shape. The landscape of the dedicated grounds currently features serene meadows, pastures, walking trails and streams, as well as a renovated barn.
“When we thought about what she would want, it was — and it is — all about caring for animals,” says Hubbard of her daughter’s memorial sanctuary. “We’ve been looking at a lot of videos lately, and it’s just extraordinary now to look and see … there was one where she was putting something in her room, and she was saying to her brother, ‘So, that’s my office, I’ll be right back. You know I run an animal rescue.’ It’s something that is a part of her soul.”
The completed vision for the property includes the construction of an animal sanctuary, which is intended to be a refuge for small farm animals and serve as a space to develop an animal-companion program for senior citizens, as well as a home base for wildlife rescue-and-release organizations in and around the community.
“The sanctuary is a place that really honors the bond between caregivers and their animals,” says Hubbard. “That can take on the look and form of, really, a family and the pet that’s in their care, a farm animal that belongs to a farmer, or the wildlife that live in our backyard. We’re all stewards of the creatures that we share this earth with.”
The sanctuary is intended to honor the human-animal bond and to provide a safe place for all creatures. The farm animals meant to live on the property will be ones that are surrendered because their owners either can’t afford them anymore, or they’re at risk of being slaughtered. While the grounds do not yet offer these services (“We will have animals once we have an onsite caregiver,” says Hubbard), native wildlife has returned — including butterflies and at-risk New England cottontail rabbits — after volunteers cleared out all the invasive species. Additionally, the sanctuary is a learning space for caregivers, where they can become better custodians of the animals and their habitats.
“What we do is really a combination of care of animals: our physical animal programming, animals that will be onsite, our collaboration with rescue animals/rescue organizations and our current work in Senior Paws, which is focused specifically on helping seniors and the animals that they care for,” Hubbard says.
The sanctuary also has an educational component through its discovery programming, including a partnership with Newtown public schools that offers an in-school science-based curriculum to teach kids about animals and their habitats and how they can provide care for those habitats.
“Whether it’s a pond and the frogs that live in it or understanding life cycles and how butterflies transform from a caterpillar into a beautiful creature … we’re in the classrooms and also offering onsite programming,” says Hubbard.
For instance, Sundays at the Sanctuary is a one-day-a-month experience where CVHF expands beyond the classroom; it’s free to the community to come and learn. The foundation also does a community adoption event called “The Butterfly Party” every June, welcoming more than 3,000 people and rehoming hundreds of animals. Plus, they recently invited families to the property to plant pumpkins and create bird feeders. Hubbard says activities like these are “just a sweet and special, innocent way … that makes a huge impact to our world.”
For more honoring the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School five years after the massacre, please pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.
The building of Catherine’s animal sanctuary is on the brink of reaching its final planning stages, and the Hubbards now have the ability to formalize and build an infrastructure to house their programming. They are hoping to raise the funds in order to start construction in late 2018, “or at the very least 2019,” says Hubbard.
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“The one thing that we are truly fortunate for, and not a day goes by that we don’t acknowledge, is that we’ve been afforded an incredible opportunity in honoring Catherine’s memory and her legacy,” Hubbard tells PEOPLE. “She was a 6-year-old little girl, and the fact that we can create something as beautiful as the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary, for us [that] has been how we’ve honored her.”
“We’ve had the opportunity to heal and cry and miss her — and would I change it for the world? Absolutely. There’s nothing more that I would want then to have Catherine back, but that’s not the reality. The reality is that she’s gone, and I know that I’ll see her again, and in the interim we can do amazing things in her name and share her kindness and her love with so many people. That’s what makes this extraordinary. It may sound weird, but I am so proud of what Catherine’s done.”
Go here to donate to the Catherine Violet Hubbard Foundation and help make the Hubbards’ vision and their daughter’s dream become a reality.
- Reporting by LIZ MCNEIL