When the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School returned to classes Thursday, they were greeted by some very special visitors from Florida: three miniature horses specially trained as therapy animals.
The horses joined some therapy dogs welcoming the children as they returned to school for the first time since the massacre in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 classmates, five adults and their principal.
IMAGES: Horses at Sandy Hook Elementary
"To really be able to have horses in places that are unexpected, is just a great way for everyone to be talking and excited and thinking about something positive," said Debbie Garcia, of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.
Garcia and three of the horses from a farm outside Gainesville were invited to Newtown by the mother of one of the victims. The miniature horses nuzzled up against the kids, kissing and loving on them, making many smile for the first time since they saw their friends carried away in caskets.
"It really has been very heart-warming and bittersweet," Garcia said. "People being incredibly kind in a very, very difficult situation."
Magic, Wokanda and Aladdin are part of the Alachua nonprofit group that uses the miniature horses to help people who are hurting heal.
"We were reading a book about our horse, Magic, and there were some funny scenes from the book and funny things in the book, and to see the kids laughing and having a good time and being kids is so important," Garcia said.
The horses and volunteers made the trip over the weekend, and have spent the last couple days spending time with first responders, who have their own issues coping with the gruesome scene they encountered on December 14.
"Everyone wants to get down and get a hug and a picture and be with the horses," Garcia said. "It just is something fun and different that they can do that's not serious."
Garcia and the other volunteers were happy to help the people of Newtown create new memories in their new classrooms, a place where they should feel safe and loved.
"You always leave feeling like that was where you were supposed to be," Garcia said of Thursday's experience. "We feel like this is where we were supposed to be. Not the first week when it happened, but now that there's really time to focus on the people and be private and be out of the limelight and really just try to meet some needs."