By Robert Tomlinson
LANSING — In the wake of the deadly shooting at Michigan State University on Feb. 13, where three students were killed and five others were injured, students and residents alike in East Lansing were, and still are, in need of some comfort in their trying times.
Jude the Comfort Dog, who operates out of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Three Rivers, was one of many comfort dogs who assisted in comforting those in need of it in the days after the incident, and part of a group that traveled with Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) in the wake of the shooting.
Jude, handler Ed Smallcombe and his wife Karen, and Pastor Jon Moritz traveled to the Michigan State Campus in East Lansing on Wednesday, Feb. 15, just two days after the incident occurred, staying for a couple of days and comforting passersby at the Graduate Hotel near campus, Sparrow Hospital, a local Target store and a candlelight vigil at The Rock on campus.
Throughout the time they were there, Smallcombe and Moritz estimated that between 500 and 600 people interacted with Jude, either petting, hugging or saying hello to the dog.
“It’s interesting when you meet people, students, people staying there and everything, they’re down a bit. After visiting with Jude a few minutes, we raise their spirits. It’s fun,” Smallcombe said.
It’s the first time Jude specifically has been invited to where a school shooting has occurred, and both Smallcombe and Moritz said it was a good experience to get to comfort people, despite the circumstances. The group, which also included a few other LCC comfort dogs, were invited by the chapel on MSU’s campus, Martin Luther Chapel, to be there for grief support.
Smallcombe said the atmosphere on campus, especially at the vigil that night, was a feeling of hurting and sadness.
“The students were all sitting on the ground, it was cold and windy, a miserable night to be out, but there were thousands of students there. They all got down there, and you could tell their hearts were hurting by their looks,” Smallcombe said. “You could always tell after a student was with Jude petting him or whatever, even just getting on the ground with him, it’d always raise their spirits. It’s kind of like when we go to a school, we always raised the students’ spirits.”
However, Moritz said while Jude couldn’t fix or solve what happened on MSU’s campus completely, having Jude there helped out in the moment and allowed students to feel at least a little bit more comfortable.
“Dogs open doors, and when you are with the students or people traumatized, once their anxiety level comes down a bit, they start talking and let things out,” Moritz said. “We’re good listeners, and we let them vent whatever they need to say.”
At the Target store, Moritz said that was a more unique experience, since in his years with the LCC’s comfort dog program, he’s never taken a dog into a retail setting before. However, he said things went well, and those that came by were receptive to them, including the staff of the store.
“We were right by the self-checkout, and all the kids have to go through that area, so virtually every kid that came through stopped by,” Moritz said, adding that they had to invite them over or let them come on their own, per protocol. “We got used to asking them if they had a dog at home, and most of them would say, ‘Yeah, I miss my dog so much.’ It was a surrogate for the animal they would’ve found comfort in at home, and Jude became a surrogate for that.”
However, the more powerful images Jude and their group saw and remembered were at the candlelight vigil at The Rock the night they arrived. Smallcombe said they remembered seeing thousands of students gathering quietly around the ceremonial rock on the campus, which was painted with the names of the three victims.
“You have the Breslin Center, and the stairs there were a staging area for the speakers, and the media was surrounding that area. Right next to it to the right is an open field, and that’s where the Rock is. All the students were gathered around there in that field, and they could not hear a thing with the speakers, and most could care less, they were ministering to themselves,” Smallcombe said. “There had to have been some word getting around that this is how we are going to handle it, because they were all standing there in total silence. When they saw the stream of kids slowed down, several people in key locations would kneel or sit, and then the whole group, all in silence and no instructions given, and then they’d remain on the ground for a certain amount of time.”
During the vigil, there were a number of people who spoke from the Breslin Center steps, but Smallcombe said the one person out of everyone who spoke that grabbed the students’ attention was MSU’s men’s basketball coach, Tom Izzo.
“He spoke towards the end, and prefaced his remarks by saying, ‘I don’t have a speech, I’m just gonna talk to you,’ and the students responded to that,” Smallcombe said. “It was a powerful thing to see.”
Overall, both Smallcombe and Moritz said they were moved by the experience having Jude up there, with Smallcombe saying helping those in mourning recover even a little bit “moved my heart closer to God.”
“The students were so hurting and to watch a simple thing like a dog can raise them up the way it does, it was really moving,” Smallcombe said.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.