Joe Dubowski received more than 500 condolence cards from people he didn't know at his Carol Stream home after his daughter, Gayle, was killed by a gunman at Northern Illinois University in 2008.
He read them all, and 4½ years later, he still has every one of them.
So does Gary Parmenter, of Westchester, who recently reread the cards and letters sent to him after his son, Dan, was killed in the NIU shootings. Parmenter still derives comfort from strangers' words.
"Whatever I received, a card, a letter, a book ... it helped because I knew my child was being remembered," he said.
As the nation reels from the horror of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., people in the suburbs are wondering how to best help families of the victims. While every word of condolence might provide some comfort, some people and organizations have sprung into action in other ways.
Arriving in Newtown over the weekend were more than a dozen suburban dog handlers from Lutheran Church Charities' Comfort Dogs Ministries, based in Addison. They've been going nonstop to vigils, schools and other places where the dogs can provide unconditional love and a temporary distraction to the grieving community.
"The dogs were a comfort to (the children) and their parents. Smiles came on their faces for the first time. It just brought them some joy," said Dona Martin, of Lake Barrington, who is in Newtown with her golden retriever, Ruthie.
Also working in Newtown with their group are Lynn Buhrke of Palatine, Sharon Flaherty and Barb Granado of Arlington Heights, Tim Kurth of Wheaton, Toni Bazon of Darien, Marci and Lacey Brooks of Des Plaines, and LCC President Tim Hetzner of Palatine. A group from La Fox also is en route, as volunteers can barely keep up with the demand for dog visits.
Here in the suburbs, many groups have quickly organized charity drives, arranging for everything from teddy bears to comic books to be sent to Newtown. Students in the Prospect High School Service Club are collecting money for the United Way's Sandy Hook School Support Fund. The money collected will be sent to Newtown Savings Bank.
"People want to do something but don't really know how to go about it," said Dave Jacobson, the school's learning service coordinator. He said the students came up with the idea for the collection, which will continue through Friday. Checks can be made payable to "Sandy Hook School Support Fund" and dropped off or mailed to the school, at 801 W. Kensington Road in Mount Prospect.
The money will be used for support services for family and community members, according to the United Way.
While everyone has good intentions, families who lost children in the NIU shootings say people need to be sensitive to the fact that these families are dealing with more than just a horrific loss.
"A week ago, we didn't know these people existed. Now, the whole nation knows who they are and their sorrow. That's hard," said Dubowski, who remembers having to enlist friends to shield his family from the overwhelming response from the media and well-intentioned strangers. "The people who can help them most are the people who know them and their child."
Dubowski said he appreciated the donations made to the memorial and scholarship funds set up in his daughter's name, which have helped provide financial assistance for orphanages through HOPE Worldwide. Parmenter agreed, saying the dedications and memorials made in his son's memory have meant a lot to him.
"These things become little miracles and blessings," he said.
One of the most touching letters Dubowski received came two years after his daughter's death. One of Gayle's friends wrote him a note, sharing a memory of when Gayle did cartwheels in the rain. That ultimately became the title of his book on finding faith after tragedy.
"If people have something heartfelt that they want to send out, it doesn't have to be received in the first few days," said Dubowski, who left his career in software development and became a certified grief recovery specialist.
Dubowski, like Parmenter, plans to reach out to families of the victims at Sandy Hook school. A group Parmenter is involved with, The Compassionate Friends based in Oak Brook, will be doing the same, he said.
"Parents who have lost a child can support other parents," he said