A huge crowd of well-wishers joined the friends, relatives and family at a memorial service Thursday for one of two Iowa cousins whose remains were found by hunters last week, months after their summer disappearance.
More than 1,000 people turned out to honor Elizabeth Collins, who was 8 when she and her 10-year-old cousin, Lyric Cook, vanished after setting off on their bicycles last July.
Elizabeth's mother, Heather Collins, told those at the Cedar Falls gathering not to lose faith, saying her family knows the girls are in a better place.
"You sometimes feel like God is not with you when you go through all this. But he is. He's by your side,'' she said.
The event was meant to celebrate Elizabeth's life, and a band played uplifting tunes while those gathered sang along and prayed. Lyric's family said they would hold something for her after Christmas.
Heather and Drew Collins, Elizabeth's father, said at a news conference prior to the memorial service that their faith in God is stronger than ever. Heather Collins said she knows God was with the girls, whose remains were found in a wooded area about 25 miles from Evansdale, where the girls were last seen.
"We know God was with them the whole entire time,'' she said. "We know where they are now. They're in such a much better place. They're going to have such a much better Christmas than we are.''
Heather Collins said her and her husband's three other children are coping with their sister's death by getting counseling and finding ways to speak to their sister through drawing and looking up at the sky.
Drew Collins said that although the family may never find closure, they are determined to find who hurt the girls. He said he suspects the person may have been a sex offender.
"We want whoever is responsible to have to answer for what they've done,'' he said. "I think we'll get a little more closure then. We don't want this person to be able to hurt anybody else.''
The couple said they will meet with Gov. Terry Branstad and other families next week to discuss death penalty legislation. Drew Collins said he supports the death penalty and he believes there should be changes to the judicial system on how prison sentences are issued to sex offenders who may commit again.
"If someone murders a child, they need to be punished severely,'' he said.
Heather Collins said the family had always planned a celebration for when their daughter came home, though the circumstances are different.
"She did come home, even though it wasn't on earth,'' she said.