The tragic deaths of 20 students and six teachers 3,000 miles away has touched high school students in Merced, Atwater and Livingston.
About 5,600 students and staff members at the Merced Union High School District campuses in all three communities signed the letter of condolence.
It is being sent to Janet Robinson, superintendent of schools in Newtown, Conn., where first-graders, their principal and some teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School were killed by a gunman last Friday.
The project was spearheaded by Annette Brown, the district's coordinator of the Character Counts program. The program covers the six pillars of character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
Brown and colleagues came up with the idea for the letter and drafted its contents over the weekend. The whole thing came together in two short days.
Students from all MUHSD campuses and employees at the district office signed the letter Monday, Brown said, and those who missed that opportunity rushed Tuesday to make sure they were included.
Many added their own sentiments and expressions of affection to the letter.
"Kids wanted to be able to do something," Brown said. "I am proud to be part of a workplace where people think of something so kind. It was good to let them (students) do something, even if just to put their name on paper. It was an act of kindness."
The students' letter read: "We are writing today to send our deepest condolences for the loss of Sandy Hook Elementary School students and staff. Though we live across the nation from you, the tragedy of your loss has affected us deeply. While we know there are no words that can ease your pain or explain our sorrow, we want you to know that you are not alone. We share your pain and we send hopes for healing."
Some of the students' separate sentiments were: "Much love. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for your loss. Stay strong. Our prayers are with you. God bless."
Janis Edwards, lead Character Counts teacher at Atwater High School, said 1,550 of the school's students and staff signed the letter. Atwater High has 1,700 students.
"We had an amazing turnout of our student population," Edwards said. "Atwater is the same size as Newtown, and this hit us really hard. I was really, really proud of everybody. Students were so excited and eager to do it. It was really nice."
Kathy Lehning, lead Character Counts teacher at Livingston High School, said between 600 and 700 students signed the letter. She said the students were familiar with the Connecticut shootings and wanted to talk about it when they returned to school on Monday.
They also wanted to add messages of their own to the letter.
"I think the more that we can recognize our humanity the better we will be in facing these things again," Lehning said.
Jamie Dyra, lead Character Counts teacher at Golden Valley High School, said some students asked if they could sign the letter twice.
"Goodness creates goodness," Dyra said. "It was amazing. It was a way for them to show some support in a situation where there was not a lot they could really do."
Julie Cook, Character Counts lead teacher at Buhach Colony High School, said almost 1,400 signatures were collected there. Some students who missed classes on Monday frantically ran to the library on Tuesday to sign the letter.
"I was really impressed with the showing of caring from our campus," Cook said. "That was impressive."
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.