For Holly Ryan, Dec. 14, 2012, was a typical, busy Friday. It wasn't until later that she learned her hometown of Newtown, CT, had become the site of the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
Ryan, 40, a school psychologist at Lakeville's Kenwood Trail Middle School, says text messages from her mother and sister first alerted her to the tragedy that unfolded.
"I think the events are still unimaginable in their entirety," Ryan said. "There are just so many personal accounts—families directly and indirectly affected—it's overwhelming."
Ryan grew up in Newtown. She lived there until she was 20, she said. And while she and her family moved away from the quiet little town, most do not. Everyone knows everyone, Ryan said. Literally—the connections are boundless. And Ryan still has a number of close friends who live there.
A few of those friends had children in Sandy Hook Elementary School the day of the shooting. Ryan also knew one of the art teachers at the building—though she escaped unharmed. Ryan's best friend still lives in Newtown—her husband is a firefighter and was one of the first responders on the scene. That friend is also a youth-sports coach, and coached a number of the children who died.
"The connections kind of go on and on," Ryan said. "I felt helpless when it happened."
At first, Ryan didn't know how to react. Eventually, she learned those closest to her—and their loved ones—were fine.
"It definitely didn't hit me entirely that it was my hometown until Saturday when I spoke with lifelong friends that were in town," Ryan said. "What most people don't understand is that the entire school district was in lock down for hours (that day). It was only hours later that they were told why, and what, had happened. Every student in any school that day has a story."
Feeling compelled to do something—anything—Ryan spent the weekend making green and white memorial ribbons.
"Making the ribbons helped, but I knew by Sunday that I needed to go home," she said. "After talking to many friends it was apparent that my town would need help for a long time and that I could probably be more helpful if I arrived after the news crews left."
But how to help? It didn't take long for Ryan to come up with a plan—and a partner.
That program introduced Ryan—and a number of her sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade students—to Ranger, a two-year-old black lab loved by the children.
Kenwood Trail's animal intervention program is geared toward children with social-emotional and/or behavioral disabilities in the school. The program actually allows the students to help train service dogs who will someday be placed in a home with a person with a disability.
"I have numerous anecdotal stories of student’s growth as a result in working with our four-legged friends," Ryan said, including the the improvement in the areas of frustration tolerance, communication, and teamwork.
"I lost count of how many times during the week students would ask: 'Is it a dog day?'" Ryan said.
She was so inspired by the pups, she began volunteering with PawPADs, helping with the dogs' socialization training.
Ranger, Ryan figured, would be a perfect partner for her trip back home to Newtown. PawPADs agreed and let her take the pooch with her.
"Many people are not at a point that they can talk about what happened. They need comfort but get tired quickly of pity and hugs and 'I'm so sorrys' from people that have good intentions," Ryan said. "A dog at times is more approachable than a counselor or a therapist."
Ryan and Ranger flew to Connecticut on Jan. 2 and stayed for four days. She paid for the trip out of her own pocket. Once they arrived, the two worked from dawn till dusk, attending events and visiting with anyone they could who was touched by the tragedy.
"Ranger met a teacher, first responders, spouses of staff and many students from (Sandy Hook Elementary)," Ryan said. "Many times—actually most of the time—when we would meet someone, I wouldn't know their story until after they walked away."
But Ranger knew, Ryan said. He knew what the people needed.
"I'm not sure I can adequately put into words how much comfort he gave to dozens and dozens of people," she said. "We were thanked so many times by so many people and I truly feel we made a difference or at least provided a bit of much needed comfort.
"People were sincerely grateful that we were there," she said.
Once home, Ryan said she had a conversation with the Kenwood Trail animal intervention program students about the trip.
"I think it helped the kids make a connection to an event that was surreal to them," Ryan said. "We ended up having great conversations about what should happen as a result—security, gun control, mental health reform. They had many questions and being able to share pictures with them from my trip made it more real to them."
Sheri Sergent, a special education teacher at Kenwood Trail, and Ryan's colleague, said the students they work with were proud of Ranger.
Sergent was also proud of her friend.
"I couldn't believe she would leave her family and job, plus fly with a dog, on her own expense and personal time," she said. "I felt it was an extremely selfless act of kindness."
Now that she's home, Ryan said she's still not sure how she feels about everything.
"Honestly, I feel like I went back selfishly to relieve my own feelings of helplessness," she said. "I just felt compelled to help in any way I could."
As for those ribbons Ryan made the weekend after the tragedy—she put a basket of them in the staff lounge at Kenwood Trail, along with a basket for donations. The school raised $175, she said.
But to her surprise, Ryan said Kari Hastad, a school psychologist at Christina Huddleston Elementary School, also took up the charge, and had folks in other schools across Lakeville's school district take collections, too.
All told, Ryan brought more than $1,000 in donated funds to Newtown with her and Ranger.
Ryan also said she doesn't want to be portrayed as a "hero or do-gooder."
"I really don't feel like I did anything extraordinary," she said. "I was one of hundreds of volunteers who came from all over to do what they could to help a small town heal. It was something that I needed to do and am really glad I went.
"This just further reinforces that [our animal intervention program] is a great program and good for kids," she said.
Without PawPADs, and their support and encouragement, Ryan says she could never have done what she did.
"I am so greatfull for having PawPADs in my life," Ryan said. "We did good work (in Newtown) and I can't imagine having done this trip without (Ranger).