Ashley Lajeunesse hugged her 6-year-old daughter, Sierra, in the predawn darkness Wednesday and then offered a simple explanation to the tiny first-grader: Mom was joining three of her friends and former classmates, taking a long drive from their home near Red Lake, Minn., to Newtown, Conn.
"I told her I had to go help some other people that went through something just like I did," Lajeunesse said. "She knew right away what I was talking about. She knows I've been in a shooting."
Lajeunesse, Leah Cook, Justin Jourdain and Whitney Spears were all ninth-graders nearly eight years ago when an armed 16-year-old student smashed through their Red Lake classroom window, killing five classmates, a teacher and an unarmed security guard.
Now in their early 20s, the four joined family members of other Red Lake shooting victims in a three-vehicle caravan heading east on a 1,500-mile journey of grief and hope.
They're scheduled to meet with Sandy Hook Elementary School teachers and families Thursday. They'll present signed tribal flags and a memorial display plaque, festooned with feathers and a dream catcher, that Columbine High School students brought them in their darkest hours following the 2005 Red Lake school shooting.
"We know exactly what those kids and families are going through," Cook said during a quick stop in Minneapolis, five hours into a 24-hour drive. She still bears a mark where a bullet grazed her leg as she fled her classroom. "We want to share with them what we went through and show them that there's hope and let them know they're not alone."
Cook, 22, still remembers the comfort she felt when Holly Carpenter and other Columbine students came to Red Lake to console them after enduring their own 1999 nightmare that left a dozen students and a teacher dead and 23 wounded.
"We were all hopeless after what happened to us," Cook said. "But they showed us they were getting on, and it gave us a lot of hope seeing people who'd been through something so traumatizing who were overcoming it."
Carpenter, now 29 and teaching middle school English near Denver, moved to Roseville after graduating from Columbine to attend Northwestern College. In a telephone interview, she remembered driving up to Red Lake when she heard about the 2005 shooting.
"I just felt really compelled to go," she said. "First, I felt so consumed with anger that this had happened again, and then I felt overwhelming sorrow and sadness."
She spent a week in Red Lake and said it was all a crucial part of her grieving journey. She thinks the Red Lakers will see "how far they've come when they're helping people from the other side."
"They'll all be healing together, and it kind of goes full circle -- it's really beneficial to be there with people who can identify how they're feeling," said Carpenter, who's written an alphabet book on grieving called "Healing Together."
Jourdain, 23, is now a tribal police officer in Red Lake, a job he said he always wanted, even before witnessing a school shooting. He said the instant he heard about 20 first-graders and six school personnel getting killed in Connecticut last week, he knew he had to go. He posted something on Facebook that mushroomed into an avalanche of donations, offers of plane tickets and other support.
"It's still so hard to deal with all this," he said. "We can relate to what they're going through, and we just want to go down and try comforting them."
When Lajeunesse learned about the horrors at Sandy Hook, she first had to comfort her 6-year-old.
"She actually came home from her school, asking: 'What if I die?' It's so hard to see her worrying about that. She's only 6 and in first grade, just like those poor children."
Lajeunesse, 23, is a clerk at the Red Lake tribal court and has two kids. Cook is going to school and raising her baby, and Spears works at the Red Lake casino and has three young children.
"It's hard to explain in words why we're making this drive," said Spears, 22. "I just hope they have a really good healing process and we're able to help that some."
As their van drove south through Motley toward a short ceremony at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis, the talk flashed back to March 21, 2005.
"We were trying to stay away from the shooting subject, but we did fall back into it," Lajeunesse said.
Added Cook: "We pretty much remember every single thing -- when he came into our room, how he did it, what he said to us. We were starting to forget it, but every time something happens, it hits home."
Jeff Weise, 16, had shot his grandfather, Red Lake police officer Daryl Lussier, and his companion, Michelle Sigana, before driving Lussier's squad car to the high school. He shot security guard Derrick Brun, teacher Neva Rogers and five ninth-graders -- Chase Lussier, Thurlene Stillday, Chanelle Rosebear, Alicia Spike and Dewayne Lewis -- before killing himself. That left the death toll at 10.
"There's not any day that goes by that we don't think about our friends and the families that lost their children," Cook said.
By driving to Connecticut, they hope to show those families that lost children in Red Lake "that they are still with us and still have a part of our heart," Cook said.
At their brief stop in Minneapolis, sacred sage was burned and a drum corps honored them with ancient Indian rhythms. Lajeunesse began to weep when she heard the drums.
"After the shooting, Leah and I couldn't really listen to the drums because it sounded so much like the sound that echoed through the hallway and into our classroom that day," she said. "It's not as hard now, but you still feel it in your gut."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767