Truth be told, those tiny candles didn’t provide much heat.
But they warmed the spirit and cleaved the darkness.
That was all that mattered on a chilly, windy Thursday night at Freeman High School, where candles were grasped by hands that also reached out to a neighbor, a friend or a loved one.
And they never let go.
It’s been that way for exactly one year in the small community south of Spokane, which was shattered by deadly violence on Sept. 13, 2017.
On that day a boy was killed, three girls were wounded and a community was changed forever.
One year later, the school and the community are still Freeman Strong, even through the tears. Many were shed Thursday night as more than 200 people gathered in the middle of the football field.
“I don’t think marking it is easy,” said Annie Keebler, a Freeman parent, as she walked from her car to the football field.
“It’s hard for sure, but it’s part of our process to heal.”
The healing continued on Thursday, which began with the dedication of a stone memorial for victim Sam Strahan.
Sitting at the entryway, it reads, “In loving memory of Sam Strahan. Bravery and Selflessness.”
To honor that memory, the students held a food drive this month. The goal was to fill 500 bags with nonperishable items. By Thursday, they had filled 808 bags.
School was open, but the district brought in additional counselors and therapy dogs.
Students were still at school that evening, preparing for the vigil. Several dozen wildflowers were entwined in the fence at the entrance to the football field.
As people arrived, they were greeted with a sign that proclaimed. “Family is Forever.”
It felt that way on Thursday night. Couples walked hand-in-hand on the grass toward midfield; so did classmates and mothers and daughters.
On this night, no teenager felt awkward after a hug from mom or dad, and almost every cellphone was stowed in pockets.
“This was a way to come together, to remember the tragedy but also move forward,” said parent B.J. Oja, whose son Dylan was among the students who led the vigil.
“This week has been really hard for the kids, who wanted to honor their friend,” Oja said.
The vigil began with remembrances of Strahan and the three girls – Gracie Jensen, Emma Nees and Jordyn Goldsmyth – who were wounded in the attack.
A few minutes later, candles were passed out and quickly lit. With the field bathed in light, music played on portable speakers and heads rested on shoulders of loved ones.
By the fourth song – “Hallelujah,” by Renee Fleming – the tears were flowing heavily. But so were the voices, which rose with every “Hallelujah.”
The vigil closed in prayer, followed by another student’s thoughtful observation on the power of a tiny candle.
“The candle can relate to our lives in so many ways,” she said. “We cannot let the light in our candle go out. We cannot be in the darkness. When one light goes out, what do we do?
“We look to our neighbor and light our candle back up. We need to be here to support each other, and that is something that Freeman is really good at.”
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