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The Rev. Shawn Smith slowly lit 27 candles, reading the names of those who died last Friday.

On tables at the front of Hartwood Presbyterian Church’s sanctuary, using colored markers, those taking part in the short vigil Monday night wrote down the names of children in their lives.

“Never let go of these names, those we read and lit a candle for, and those we wrote down,” Smith prayed.

He told the group of about 40 that gathered at the church off U.S. 17 in Stafford County that he needed something proactive, something to hold on to after hearing of the shooting in Connecticut.

Smith, the father of four and a volunteer at neighboring Hartwood Elementary School, didn’t focus on evildoing, but instead, wanted to offer prayers for the many affected by the tragedy—including the educators, first responders, medical staff and families. “It will not always be like this,” Smith said, offering words of hope and a promise the tears will end.

Teachers were giving their kids extra hugs Monday, the first day back since 20 first graders and six school staff  members were killed in Newtown, Conn.

“None of us can even imagine what today was like for them,” Smith prayed. “God, please help them to know they are not alone.”

Jenn Page, a reading paraprofessional at Stafford’s Kate Waller Barrett Elementary School, said many faculty and students wore green and white, the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School, to show local support.

“I would like to find a way to mourn with the community and express my sadness,” Page said before the quiet service in the historic church that had wreaths hanging on windows and a Chrismon tree, a Christmas tree decorated with Christian symbols.

She had stayed home with a sick daughter Monday. When she called the church her family attends, she learned nothing was planned so she attended the Hartwood vigil. Nicole Lamkin, a Germanna Community College student, said she’s not  religious but wanted to be part of a service. “You don’t have to be religious to gather together, to send your hope, love and thoughts to those who need them,” Lamkin said.

She and best friend Adrienne Ford, both from King George, said the last few days have been hard. “We needed to feel like we’re doing something,” Lamkin said.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975