In a collective display of love for a recently lost child, as well as support for the grieving family left behind, more than 100 parents and children converged at the ABCD Daycare Center on Wednesday to participate in a mass release of balloons.
The gathering, said Chris Bjurstrom, co-owner of the Coeur d'Alene day care that 5-year-old Rhett Gustin had attended, was intended to remind his loved ones that their family extended to the whole school population.
"To be able to show Rhett's family how many people do care, and the support they do have," Bjurstrom said.
Class members held hands as they were led by teachers into the facility playground, where they aligned by their parents around the yard.
The kids erupted into exclamations as staff emerged with fistfuls of colored balloons, which they distributed to every outreached palm.
Bjurstrom presented a memory box to Rhett's parents, Paula and Clay Gustin of Hayden, before she read a poem.
"We know Rhett's watching from heaven above. With each ray of sunshine, he's sending his love," she read through tears.
As Rhett's family moved to the middle of the yard, students and parents congregated around them, insulating them against the wind with balloons in hand.
All were bright and colorful, Bjurstrom said, exactly what Rhett loved.
"We want to send all the balloons up to Rhett, so he knows we love him, and he'll be in our hearts forever and ever," she told the crowd.
On a count of three, all relinquished their balloons to the air, exclaiming together, "We love you, Rhett!"
The children pointed as the balloons were carried swiftly upward, dots of pink, purple and yellow dancing beneath the harsh gray sky.
Rhett died May 20 in an accident. His family requested the details not be mentioned.
Staff and parents wiped their eyes as they rounded children back up on Wednesday afternoon.
Bjurstrom remembered seeing Rhett every day, she said.
"Rhett was a character," she said. "Always had a smile on his face, always. Always wanting to make people laugh."
Rhett's aunt, Liz Blankenship, among the several family members hugging and murmuring warm words to the Gustins on Wednesday, said the family is processing the loss one day at a time.
"We're just sticking together," she said. "We're amazed by the outreach from the community."
Diana Kienbaum, Rhett's grandmother, remembered her last conversation with Rhett with a smile.
"He told me, 'Gram, I can't wait for Thanksgiving. Please invite my parents over, because you're the best turkey cooker,'" she said. "It's 80 degrees out, and he's thinking about Thanksgiving."
Followed by several other families, Rhett's family walked with day care staff afterward to another playground, where they planted a tree in Rhett's memory.
A soft rain pelting down, Clay helped ease the tree into the earth, onlookers applauding. The Gustins shoveled dirt in around the edges, shovels passed on to each family member to contribute.
Clay helped Rhett's 2-year-old sister tip in her share.
Afterward, the couple held each other and their daughter for a long moment.
Amy Florence, whose nephew was a classmate of Rhett's, was tearful after the event.
"It's just heartbreaking. Such a devastating loss," she said, adding that her own son is 4.
But the afternoon at least gave her hope, Florence said.
"Knowing that we have this day care as an extended family, it means more to me to know there's a wonderful group of people who are here for you, in any way," she said.
SHAWN GUST/Press Clay Gustin embraces his wife and daughter after a tree was planted at ABCD Daycare in honor of their son Rhett.