As students returned to classes in Newtown, Conn., Tuesday, just four days after a brutal school shooting claimed the lives of 20 of their classmates along with six adults, a Lutheran organization based in Chicago is taking unusual steps to try to bring comfort to the grief-stricken survivors.
Lutheran Church Charities of Addison, Ill., has dispatched a team of at least eight "comfort dogs" to Newtown, in an effort to provide an uplifting distraction to the young Sandy Hook students along with family members of the 26 victims.
”There are a lot of people that are hurting," Tim Hetzner, organizer of the project and president of the Lutheran Church Charities, told the Chicago Tribune. "It's good for the children to have something [to think about] that is not the shooting.“
The eight golden retrievers -- Abbi, Barnabas, Chewie, Hannah, Luther, Prince, Ruthie and Sham-- arrived in Newtown, Conn. on Saturday, where they visited with the family members of slain victims and later attended a speech given by President Barack Obama at an interfaith gathering.
As the entire nation grieved over the horrific tragedy, Obama addressed a crowd of mourners at an interfaith prayer vigil in Sandy Hook on Sunday night. "I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts," the President told the packed crowd. "I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight."
Hetzner first organized the initiative in 2008 after a lone gunman shot and killed five students at Northern Illinois University. In an effort to provide an uplifting distraction to students, dog caretakers visited the campus, hoping to raise the students' spirits. The program was so popular that after the canines' departure NIU students organized a petition to have the dogs come back. The program has since expanded to six states, and currently includes a roster of 60 dogs, who have helped out in disaster relief in the aftermath of tragedies like Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo.
It was Hetzner's hope that the dogs, whose presence he says fosters a safe environment for students to share their grief, could bring some much-needed warmth to the still grieving community, and not only for parents who had lost children. "I asked (one man) how he is doing. He just kind of teared up and said, 'This year, I've lost five loved ones and now this happened,'" said Hetzner. "The whole town is suffering."
Lynn Buhrke, a 66-year-old handler of a female retriever named Chewie, echoed Hetzner's sentiments, saying, "The dogs have become the bridge. People just sit down and talk to you."
On Tuesday, the dogs were scheduled to participate in a special after-school program for Sandy Hook students. "Dogs are nonjudgmental. They are loving. They are accepting of anyone," said Hetzner. "It creates the atmosphere for people to share."