DUBUQUE, Iowa --- There had never been a focus for the ceremonial vigil that highlights Stop the Hate Week.
That changed this year, as the smiling faces of two nationally known pre-teens who have been missing since July served as a backdrop of hope for a better tomorrow.
Parents and family of abducted cousins Elizabeth Collins, 9, and Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 11, joined more than 60 supporters Thursday evening for a candlelight vigil outside the Academic Resource Center at Loras College.
Elizabeth's parents, Heather and Drew Collins, of Evansdale, thanked supporters and expressed their gratitude for not letting their family be forgotten. Drew said it was the first vigil held so far away from home.
"It's an overwhelming feeling," Heather said.
Wylma Cook, grandmother to both girls and Lyric's guardian, appreciated the support as well.
"It's a great feeling that people care," she said. "We just pray that the kids come home real soon."
The Rev. William Joensen, dean of spiritual life at Loras, led supporters in a prayer, and representatives from Loras student groups who sponsored the third annual Stop the Hate Week events reflected on societal violence while discussing the shared obligation to help get the girls home safely.
Before thanking the community for its support, Heather Collins read an open letter that had been published in the Waterloo Courier, which pleaded with the unidentified abductor to bring the children home.
"Please let our girls come home to us," she read. "Do the right thing. Be a hero."
The girls disappeared July 13 while riding bikes in Evansdale near a lake, sparking a massive search by volunteers and local, state and federal investigators. Police believe they were abducted and still are working leads. It's believed the girls still are alive.
"They could be in another country or they could be five miles from home," Drew said. "There is just no evidence. We just don't know."
Students from a Loras marketing class sold wristbands and bumper stickers for $1 to raise awareness. Two freshmen in attendance said they had never specifically heard of the abducted girls before the vigil, but said they would post flyers.
"I know a few places where I can post them," said Jill Meyer, who lives in Wadsworth, Ill.
The girls' great-aunt, Terri Wainwright, who lives in Dubuque, asked for prayer that the girls return safely for Christmas.
"It's been a long and heartbreaking 140 days," she said.