Chris Wehmeyer and her husband were watching television on May 24 when the news came on the screen. An 18-year-old gunman stormed into Robb Elementary School, killing 19 children and two teachers in a small farming community of 15,000.
“It was hard to believe it was little Uvalde, Texas,” said Chris, who lives with her husband Ken in Bastrop, about three hours northeast. The next day, they got in the car and drove to Uvalde. But first they picked up Abner, a large golden retriever from Austin.
Abner was one of nine golden retrievers from Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado making their way to town in mourning. The Wehmeyers and their golden cargo are part of Lutheran Church Charities’ K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, which sends teams of dogs to the scenes of the tragedy. Another branch of the ministry, LCC Hearts of Mercy & Compassion, erects crosses for the victims. When a catastrophe overwhelms a community, LCC workers and volunteers arrive at the invitation of local churches or leaders and meet the pain with a calm presence.
“Dogs are a bridge,” explains Ken. “If you give me one of these dogs, I can talk to anyone.”
The day after the shooting in Uvalde, community members gathered for a prayer vigil at the Uvalde County Fairplex, a multi-use arena that regularly hosts rodeos and monster truck rallies. There, Wehmeyers and other handlers lined up with the dogs as people shuffled in.
Dogs know when someone is sad. They do not offer common places, only company. Children silenced by trauma often begin to speak while stroking the silky fur. Parents are relieved to see their child crying or talking because they haven’t been able to get him to express his emotions. “They don’t know they’re being petted, but the words flow,” said Bonnie Fear, LCC K-9 crisis response coordinator. “So we see a lot of relief on the parents’ faces.”
At the Fairplex, when Ken took Abner outside for a drink of water, a man and his daughter approached them and asked if they could pet the dog. Ken said yes. As it turned out, the girl, a teenager, had lost her younger sister in the shooting.
The dog handling group also visited with first responders, the FBI, the Texas Highway Patrol and the Border Patrol. LCC K-9 spends approximately two years training the dogs at its headquarters in Northbrook, Ill. Then each dog is assigned a local church. Abner belongs to Bethany Lutheran Church in Austin. He greets parishioners and sleeps through Sunday sermons. A host family takes care of him during the week. When he’s not driving cross country, he visits nursing homes, schools and first responders at local police departments and 911 centers. LCC K-9 has more than 130 comfort dogs serving in 26 states.
The Wehmeyers joined Bethany Lutheran Church about five years ago. When the retired couple saw Abner, it was “love at first sight,” Chris said.
LCC Hearts of Mercy & Compassion worked with the City of Uvalde to find a central location to place 21 memorial crosses for the victims of the shooting. Robb Elementary School was protected by yellow police tape and packed with reporters, so the group placed their crosses around a fountain in the center of town.
The volunteers started with raw wood and paint. Each cross had a pale blue heart, the silhouette of a fish, and a verse from the Bible. “Once you put a name on that heart, they come to life,” said Jody Lockwood, deployment leader for Hearts of Mercy & Compassion Uvalde. “Every time I do this I have all the names and their stories in my head.”
A black marker is attached to each cross. Now, notes and prayers are scrawled on memorials. “Give my mom a hug for me. You are a hero,” says a message written on the cross for Irma García, one of the two teachers killed.
The Wehmeyers helped assemble the crosses. Local residents helped unload the trucks. The offerings at the base of each monument – flowers, stuffed animals, candles, toys – grew until the crosses were barely visible. After installing the crosses, the guides in royal blue polo shirts stood in silence with their comfort dogs.
The Uvalde children who started school again on September 6 did not return to Robb Elementary. Some attended other public schools, while the parents of others chose to homeschool them or enroll them in private schools. Many children were afraid to step back in a classroom.
Ten dogs and 20 handlers returned to the town to greet the children who returned to the classrooms. The Wehmeyers took Abner to Uvalde High School, where students petted the animal in the hallway between classes.
While handlers like the Wehmeyers hold the leashes, they too will listen and pray. “We are trained to listen, to have empathy and not to talk too much,” Fear said. “We want them to express their pain or their joy. We want them to remember that someone loves them and prayed for them.”
Source : wng.org