George Schiestel of Arlington Heights has been a trained dog handler for nearly two years, but nothing touched him like his visit earlier this month to Newtown, Conn.
"It was an extremely emotional trip -- but very worthwhile," says Schiestel, who runs Detail Kitchens in Arlington Heights by day.
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Schiestel was one of six handlers and seven golden retrievers to travel to the scene of last month's deadly shooting for the reopening of school after the holidays. They participate in the K9 Comfort Dogs Ministry, developed by Lutheran Church Charities, based in Addison.
The group greeted students as they returned to Newtown High School Jan. 2 and one day later at the new location of Sandy Hook Elementary School, where classes resumed in a former middle school. Other handlers came from Addison, Hawthorn Woods, La Fox, Darien and Belvidere.
"We were the only outside organization allowed inside the buildings," Schiestel says.
He traveled with Pastor Paul Klopke of Living Christ Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights, and the parish's trained comfort dog, JoJo.
"There was a total open door policy toward us," Klopke says. "I felt as though God was using us to help heal the community."
He and Schiestel were anxious about being in the school when the elementary students returned after their holiday break.
"We were all nervous because we're not trained counselors," Schiestel says. "But we were given instructions and told not to initiate any conversations. We could answer questions, but if the subject of the tragedy came up, we were to call over one of the counselors."
Schiestel says there were many emotional encounters during his visit, but one continues to haunt him.
Each of the children he met at the new Sandy Hook loved to collect the dogs' business cards, which gives their background, as well as a Bible verse and where to follow the dogs on their individual Facebook pages.
"On the second day, one of the little girls showed me a box she had colored, with all of the dogs' cards inside," Schiestel says. "JoJo's was on top because she said he was her favorite."
He only found out later that the 6-year-old girl had been in Victoria Soto's first-grade room, and was one of seven students from her class to survive the attack after hiding in a closet. Her teacher died after trying to shield her students from the shooter.
"I'm still emotional just talking about it," Schiestel says. "Being a grandparent, I can't imagine how much those children were affected. And not only the kids, but their parents and teachers too."
The dog handlers went into three of four first-grade classrooms. Their visits were during circle time, when the children could take turns hugging and petting the dogs.
"You could see the fear on their faces when they entered the new school," Schiestel says, "and the same fear disappear once they started petting the dogs."
Comfort dogs were requested almost immediately after the shooting by a local Lutheran congregation in Newtown to help heal the community.
"We were in there the day after the shooting," says Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities. "We've had handlers out there ever since, and more are on the road to serve as replacements."
Schiestel said his group of handlers returned home last Sunday after spending five days in the Newtown area. While there, they also visited a nursing home, shopping mall and a Lutheran school in Danbury.