BUENA VISTA, Colo (CBS4) – At McInnis Middle School in Buena Vista, nine boys are voluntarily giving up their lunch to sort through T-shirts. The shirts say “Stay Strong” — it’s a message they want to send to their friend, Gracie Johnson.

“We miss her a lot. She’s in our prayers and stay strong,” said Cade Carroll, a classmate and childhood friend.

The 13-year-old was the sole survivor of a huge rock slide in the mountains outside Buena Vista. Gracie had been hiking with her parents and three other family members when the rock slide happened. She survived because her father shielded her from the huge boulders.

Now Gracie’s friends are struggling to understand how this could have happened.

“I was in a lot of shock. I do feel helpless. We all feel helpless,” said Cade Carroll.

“Yeah, just kind of hopeless and helpless … nothing I could do about it,” said Jeff Ludwig.

“Now how are you feeling?” CBS4’s Suzanne McCarroll asked Ludwig.

“Better … just kind of working on all this. It takes my mind off it,” Ludwig responded.

Making, sorting, and selling the T-shirts has given the young men something to focus on in the face of this unspeakable tragedy. The shirts are blue and gray — Gracie’s favorite colors. On the back is “#Faith 4 the Johnsons” – Faith is Gracie’s middle name. The money goes to fund a college scholarship for Gracie.

“I just said, ‘What if we start a fund for Gracie to help her with school?’ ” said Sheldon Roth.

“What do you think it says to Gracie?” McCarroll asked Hayden McGinnis.

“I think it says we’re here for her … that we’re here to help anytime,” McGinnis responded.

The boys are leaning on each other, and keeping their good friend Gracie in their thoughts. All of them have grown up together.

“They’ve just been my friends for a long time … since first or second grade. And we’ve just had a special bond that we can’t get mad at one another,” said Dakota Jensen.

The T-shirts are being sold statewide and are being worn by students throughout the school in a show of unity for their friend.

LINK: Gracie Johnson Scholarship

“I think the way we’ve come together, we’ll be okay. But it’s not just going to go away really soon, it’s going to be a long time before it goes away for good,” said Cade Carroll.

When Gracie comes back to school, she will have the entire student body welcoming her — led by a group of boys not used to talking about feelings but anxious to help their friend feel better.

“I just want her to stay strong. I know she’s a strong person and we’re all here for her if she needs us,” said Hayden McGinnis.

RELATED: More Coverage of the Rock Slide

–Written for CBSDenver.com by Special Project Producer Libby Smith


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