WESTMINSTER – It's rare to have a classroom of sixth-graders who have all experienced the same tragedy. But for Jessica Ridgeway's classmates, every day is a reminder of how they will never forget her bright smile and infectious laugh. And what the school has done to help them cope with their loss is inspiring.
Mrs. Shelia Grice's fifth-grade Witt Elementary class is more organized than you could ever imagine. A 30-year veteran teacher has a gentle, but forceful way of managing the bright-eyed bunch. Her southern drawl almost coos the students into submission.
"I would so deeply appreciate it [if] you get yourself ready," Grice said. "[Today,] we are thanking people who have helped us."
It's a project, one of many this year, designed to bring the school together. Today, Grice's fifth graders are helping second graders make footprints with a thank-you message for someone special.
The second- and fifth-grade footprints will be placed on a mountain in the school's main hallway. The mountain has a slogan from Nelson Mandela, "It always seems impossible until it's done."
"We are climbing to the top of the mountain today," Grice told her class. "If you have any trouble, ask for help."
Grice has been climbing a proverbial mountain over the last 19 months, ever since her new student Jessica Ridgeway vanished one October morning.
"I stopped breathing that day when the Golden police officer said they were beginning to worry that someone had taken her," Grice said. "The only thing I could think of is coming into this classroom and doing my very best to help comfort the children."
When Jessica vanished, Grice said the world "responded with a hug."
"It's a big mountain to climb, I might add," Grice said. "This is if I'm trying to climb a 14er, I take a few steps, and then I sit down to catch my breath. That's what I've actually done for the past year."
This past year has been hard for everyone in the school. What helped Grice and the entire Witt community get through it is being together.
"I think we've made a lot of progress," she said. "I've given and received many many hugs."
That's why the theme for the entire school year is "togetherness." The footsteps for the little ones, and "thank you" flags for six grade are a part of the effort to bring everyone together.
"Who has helped you with your work this year?" Grice asked her students working on the cut out contours of their feet. "Who's been a good friend to you?"
Kindergarten teacher Colleen Hays says it's the good friends at Witt that got her through the last months, and the difficult moments that still hit her.
"We've had a lot of obstacles. It's been hard," Hays said. "There are days when it just hits you, and you can't catch your breath. But the reason why we did this and we're putting that one name on there [footprint], there is always that one person who got to you that day, made you smile and helped you along your journey."
Nine-year-old Rebecca Cook said she wanted to thank Ms. Jill.
"Ms. Jill likes looking at the sky," Rebecca said, while drawing the sky on her paper footprint.
The second grader can't remember what the mountain is about.
"Sometimes I have a hard time remembering things," she said.
But for Jessica's friends in sixth grade, the grade she would've been in this year, the mountain is a symbol of many obstacles overcome.
"No matter what us sixth graders do, we always have [Jessica] in it," said Jessica's friend Eavie Higgins. "Because we always think of her when we do stuff here."
"At first, it was sad and depressing," said Jessica's friend Kylie Magdaleno, "But everyone knows now that she's always still there, and she just runs down the halls all the time. It's changed in a way of loving [each other] even more."
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