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Atrium helps to 'reclaim' school

By Kevin Simpson
Denver Post Staff Writer

Aug. 20, 2000 - Ann Kechter felt waves of emotion - anticipation, joy, relief - when she first laid eyes on the new Columbine High School atrium she helped create in the space where, for the last year, tragedy had been closeted.

"To me," said the mother of slain student Matt Kechter, "it's almost alive." On Saturday, organizers, donors and builders proudly shared their feelings with the media at a low-key unveiling of phase one of a $3.1 million project designed to reconstruct more than just the school's physical appearance.

The atrium opened up the cafeteria ceiling - eliminating the sealed-off, second-floor library where 10 of 13 Columbine victims were murdered in the April 1999 massacre.

Into the new expanse, designers and builders installed an elaborate, sectional ceiling mural described as an "ant's-eye view" of the Colorado forest canopy.

"We wanted heads to be lifted, not heads hung, wondering, "Where did that child die?'
" said Dawn Anna, mother of Columbine library victim Lauren Townsend.

"When you walk into the atrium, you have to walk with your head up. The entire room lifts your spirits."

Columbine staff and students have had a week to soak up the expansive and artistic ambiance of the atrium, which also did away with the row of lockers installed after the shootings to barricade the library entry. Additional windows and seethrough trophy cases now draw the eye to the mural and, outside, to the mountains.

Early reviews have been encouraging.

"It's changed the whole school," said Lanae Bradford, a close friend of Matt Kechter who just started her senior year.

"Last year, whenever you walked by the library and saw that wall of lockers, you felt sad, because you knew that behind it was this horrible place. But when I walked in on Tuesday, I felt like we'd reclaimed the school."

A job that normally would have taken four months to complete was finished in 9_ weeks.

"You'd ask people to do things beyond their scope," said project supervisor Ryan Thompson of Turner Construction, "things that with other jobs would come down to money. But on this job it came down to, "What do you need?'

The next phase of the project, scheduled to be done in January, will construct a permanent new library to replace the modular unit in use since the shootings.

Kechter and Anna spearheaded the fund-raising drive, dubbed HOPE - Healing of People Everywhere - and in a span of just a few months the coalition of victims' families and community activists raised money for the project. Schoolchildren contributed their pennies and high-profile benefactors wrote six-figure checks.

At Saturday's event, loose-leaf binders were filled with notes and letters from a wide range of donors to HOPE, which raised more than the $3.1 million. Some offered simple encouragement while others apologized for small donations, explained how Columbine had touched their lives or added some other personal footnote to their contributions.

"This is spare change I collected at the two Weight Watchers classes I teach.
." wrote one.

For most, the real payoff has come in listening to the positive reactions of Columbine students and teachers. "To hear the stories we've heard in the last week is incredibly heartening to us," said Bruce Beck, Lauren Townsend's stepfather.

"We know we did the right thing."

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