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'It means everything': Meet the man behind 25,000 white crosses for gun violence victims

Greg Zanis has dedicated his life to remembering victims of gun violence and helping their families heal.
Greg Zanis makes crosses he puts at the sites of mass shootings.
Greg Zanis makes crosses he puts at the sites of mass shootings.TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

Greg Zanis has dedicated his life to creating symbols to remember the lives of those lost to gun violence.

The sight of Zanis, 67, arriving at memorials for mass shooting victims with his handcrafted wooden crosses bearing victims' photos and names has become a familiar one since he made his first cross 20 years ago.

"That means so much to these family members that strangers do this,'' Zanis told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Thursday. "It changes their grief."

Crosses built and painted by the retired carpenter have been delivered in his pick-up truck from his home in Aurora, Illinois, to grief-stricken families after mass shootings everywhere from Newtown, Connecticut, to Parkland, Florida.

Crosses made by Greg Zanis have become signs of heartbreak and healing at the sites of mass shootings across the country for two decades. TODAY

He has built, by hand, more than 25,000 crosses as mass shootings became a regular part of the landscape in America.

"It means everything to these people,'' he said. "It's something tangible that they can have that means, 'This is my daughter. This is my son.'''

Zanis dubbed his undertaking "Crosses for Losses" and began making them every day in his garage.

I know I'm doing something important when I'm doing it.

He intimately knows the pain of losing a loved one to gun violence. He found his father-in-law at the bottom of the stairs in a pool of blood just a few blocks from his own home after he had been shot to death in 1996.

He made his first cross that same year when a woman in a support group asked him to build one for her 6-year-old son, who was killed in a drive-by shooting.

TODAY's Savannah Guthrie talks with Crosses for Losses founder Greg Zanis. TODAY

"When I put the cross in, it just brought so much comfort to everybody because somebody cares, you know?" he said. "It got in the paper (that) Greg would build a cross for anybody, anywhere, anytime and deliver it. I didn't realize what that would do."

"It was the best thing that happened to me during my grief, was to have something to do,'' he said.

He has since logged more than half a million miles on the road across the country and delivering the crosses.

Zanis says people are often writing messages to the victims of gun violence on the crosses the instant that he brings them. TODAY

His creations are not confined by a specific religion, either. Zanis traveled to Pittsburgh last month after creating wooden Stars of David in memory of the 11 people murdered in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.

His creations often provoke a visceral response as he sets them up in places of mourning for the victims.

While he mainly crafts memorial pieces for victims of gun violence, he's also made them for other tragic events, such as the deadly 2018 wildfires in California.

"I don't even have 'em set up and people are writing on them and everything immediately,'' he said. "And it's an immediate change."

In addition to the physically and emotionally exhausting work of honoring victims of gun violence, Zanis has also endured his own heartbreak. His daughter, Maria Susan Raibley, the oldest of his five children, died at 37 in January of what he told the Chicago Tribune at the time was likely a drug overdose.

Despite that heavy burden, Zanis plans on making and delivering the crosses for as long as he can.

"We have to be strong for the victims,'' he said. "We can't be weak. I know I'm doing something important when I'm doing it."