Flip through a high school yearbook in almost any large U.S. city, and you're likely to see a page with a memorial to a student or teacher who died during the school year, whether in a car accident, gang violence or a shooting incident. While not as common in small, rural schools, such events do occur, and afterwards, there's always an outpouring of support from the community, letting the student body know they are not alone in their grief. Shanna Lewis has the story of one remarkably simple act of compassion that followed a recent tragedy, caught on, and is spreading.
It began two years ago, following a deadly shooting at Platte Canyon High School in the small town of Bailey, Colorado. When Liesel Reilly of nearby Evergreen heard about the tragedy, she wanted to do something to help. For a number of years, Reilly has been part of a network of people who knit scarves to give to those going through difficult times. She called area churches, a hospice and other organizations that already had stockpiles of scarves.
By the time the Platte Canyon students returned to school for the first time after the shooting, Reilly and several other women were there to give them scarves. "We ended up giving out over 300 prayer scarves that morning," Reilly recalls.
Eventually, school officials asked for more scarves – one for every student and staff member in the entire district. Reilly put the word out that more scarves were needed and she was overwhelmed with the response. Scarves came in from all over the country. "I think that took maybe about four or five weeks to get the scarves to everyone and I think there was a total about 13 or 1400 scarves, so was a real great outpouring of love for the whole community for the students."
Platte Canyon sophomore Emily Hirschfeld says getting the scarves was comforting. "It was a big relief. It was nice that someone homemade them. I don't know how to explain it… it was just a good feeling to have someone take their time to make us feel better."
The scarves struck a chord with the students and staff at Platte Canyon High School. Last fall, they heard about a homecoming parade accident in Custer County, in the southern part of the state, which left Courtney Curtis, 15, dead. Teacher Kip Otteson asked his class if they wanted to knit scarves for the Custer kids. They said yes. Once they got started, the knitting project spread to other classes and other grades.
Some students made just one scarf and others made dozens. Platte Canyon sophomore Jesse Kirby turned out 24 scarves. He says he could empathize with the students at Custer County High. "That's what motivated me to make as many scarves as I did, because I'm no straight-A, 'work my butt off all the time' kind of kid, but I worked my butt off for them 'cause I knew exactly what they were going through."
During November and early December, about 50 students, both girls and boys, could be seen knitting and crocheting in the classrooms and hallways of Platte Canyon High School.
Just before the winter break, an unexpected gift arrived at Custer County High School: 180 brightly colored, hand-knitted scarves. Every student wore a scarf home that day.
The Platte Canyon kids also sent along a six-minute video titled Remembering Courtney. It begins with an explanation from one of the students. "Hey, Custer County," she says, "you're probably wondering why we're sending you scarves – out of all things that we could have sent you during your time of sadness. And the reason is because last year when we had a school shooting and we lost one girl, the community sent us scarves." The video ends with the message: "Enjoy the scarves. We are thinking of you."
The Custer students thanked the knitters at Platte Canyon High School by sending a photo of all of them wearing their new scarves.
Then, three months ago, the Custer kids learned that a teen from tiny La Veta High School about 100 kilometers away had been killed in an auto accident. They knew that it was their turn to start knitting.
Amid stacks of books in the school library, a group of teens and teachers knitted and ate lunch together. Dozens of long scarves in a rainbow of colors hung along the wall behind them. As she worked on a red and black scarf (La Veta's school colors) senior Megan Hedberg explained why she was involved in the project. "When the Bailey kids knit the scarves I thought it was really cool and it's another way to give back to other people and other communities and show them that there are other people who care about what they go through."
Hedberg, like many of her classmates, learned how to knit just for this project. Teachers, students and folks in the community who already knit all pitched in to give lessons.
In late March, a delegation of students from Custer County delivered 120 scarves to La Veta. School superintendent Dave Seaney says knowing that others cared helped his students deal with their grief. Now, he says, his students are thinking of ways they can reach out to others who have also suffered a loss.