A community 'surrounded by love'

With poems and prayers, Denver residents give support after Columbine

Heaped beneath a lean elm tree in Clement Park here are hundreds of flowers, teddy bears, and handwritten poems. A note reads, "You have been shattered by their hate. But you are surrounded by our love."

Clutching her four-year-old daughter's hand, Sandy Woischke gently rests a bunch of flowers beside the tree. The mother and daughter then kneel before the informal memorial to pray.

Even as America struggles to make sense of the deadly school shooting here earlier this week, thousands of Coloradans like the Woischkes are gathering on a wide lawn near Columbine High School. Students and families, acquaintances and strangers crowd onto paths around the park.

One thing they all share is the compelling need to be present here, to help in any way they can. And in recent days, people from opposite sides of the Denver area have come to this suburb set in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, becoming neighbors and friends, lending their time, their support, and their love.

"There's going to have to be a lot of healing," says Ms. Woischke, as she strokes her daughter Aspen's curling blond hair. "It's going to be hard, but I think the community will pull through it. Colorado has always been strong that way."

That Colorado strength was apparent six years ago when, after a summer of rampant gang violence, Denverites marched through city streets, helping to snuff out the violence and catalyzing the passage of new gun laws and curfews.

Again, in late 1997, residents held vigils and prayer services after two people were shot in a racially motivated attack against an African immigrant. Coloradans donated $120,000 to the murdered immigrant's family and hometown, as well as a $24,000 water pump for his village on the edge of the Sahara. They said, "We will not tolerate hate."

The same is true today. Radio stations around Denver are playing inspirational music - songs emphasizing faith and love over hate. The Colorado General Assembly canceled its Wednesday sessions - and the Colorado Avalanche hockey team and the Colorado Rockies baseball club each postponed two games - out of respect. And blood-donation centers are so full that many volunteers had to wait in line for hours.

Special prayer services and vigils are also being held throughout the Denver area. At Light of the World Roman Catholic Church, about a mile from Columbine High, hundreds of families have congregated throughout the week. At times, the crowd spills past the doors.

At the high school, meanwhile, others are trying to assist any way they can. "I just came out here to see if there was anything I could do to help," says Mike Filion of Aurora, Colo. "I don't have any kids, but when I heard about this, all I could think was, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' I just want to volunteer for whatever I can."

Cheril and George Sears, also from Aurora, took off from work so they could donate blood this morning, and then come here. "We have three teenagers. It could have been just as easily at our school, in our neighborhood," says George, his voice straining.

"If nothing else comes out of this, I hope parents will appreciate their children more, and spend more time with them," says Cheril.

For Monika Courtney, a mother of two from Evergreen, Colo., just being in Littleton helps, she says. "I couldn't stay home. I couldn't sleep. You just have to come here." She also wanted her children - ages 5 and 7 - to be able to better understand this tragedy. "I don't want to scare them, but you have to make them aware," she says. "This has made an impression on them."

For some here, though, the tragedy is much more personal. Sarah Tomicich graduated from Columbine High two years ago, and her brother Jerad is still a student there. Ms. Tomicich now attends Colorado State University in Fort Collins, but when she heard about the shooting, she drove home immediately.

Her brother was unharmed, but she wants to stay home now to help comfort others. "I wanted to be able to hug my brother," she says. "And I know that a lot of these kids need to hug, and to talk, and to let it out. I want to be there and just listen to anyone who needs to talk about this."

The memories of Tuesday's attacks are still fresh, but Tomicich is confident that Littleton residents will recover.

"This is an awesome community. It's really strong," she says. "When something happens, everyone bands together. Just look at all these people here. I think we're going to get through this."

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