Strangers in a freshman-year seminar at Elmhurst College in 2015, students Lili Herrera and Katie Mantych were about to join together on a life-altering path.
"It started first year of college, first semester," remembers Herrera, 20, who grew up in Melrose Park.
Chocolate WalkWhat: "James and the Chocolate Factory Walk" charity fundraiser
When: 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 10
Where: Elmhurst College, 190 S. Prospect Ave, Elmhurst
Why: To raise medical funds for family of James Fulkerson of Schaumburg
Who: Sponsored by Acts of Random Kindness club at Elmhurst College
"It was called 'Creativity Unleashed,'" says Mantych, 23, who lives in Mount Prospect.
Taught by Soni Simpson, associate professor of business, and her staff partner, Jimmy Fitzgerald, director of technology support services, the seminar introduced students to the opportunities, character and community at Elmhurst College. As part of that, Jeff Fulkerson, who works as a network and security specialist for Fitzgerald, came to class with his wife, Stacy, to talk about life with their son, James, who suffers from a chromosome disorder, epilepsy, quad cerebral palsy and other health issues.
"So I'm sitting there in this small classroom and this (Fulkerson) family just in front of us," Herrera says. "They left before the class ended. After a few days, James is still in my head. There must be something I can do."
James, who turns 8 on Tuesday, can't talk, sit, eat or move his limbs. He needs to have his airway suctioned 50 times a day and endures dozens of painful seizures each day.
"You cannot talk about James without tearing up. I knew they were paying attention, but it was touching," remembers Stacy Fulkerson.
"It just really struck a chord with Lili and Katie," Simpson says of her students, who are now juniors.
"(Herrera) has such a big heart. She's the kindest person I've ever met in my life," Mantych says.
On Sunday, Sept. 10, the students' Acts of Random Kindness (ARK) club will host a "James and the Chocolate Factory Walk" fundraiser with hot chocolate, brownies, cookies, musical entertainment and raffle prizes. The event begins at 10 a.m. at the campus, 190 S. Prospect Ave. in Elmhurst. For details visit jameswalk.com.
"I was actually speechless. I was overwhelmed," Jeff Fulkerson says when he learned of the fundraiser. "I was very taken aback that a couple of freshmen students wanted to help someone else."
Herrera and Mantych say they "started brainstorming" soon after hearing the Fulkersons talk, but it took lots of effort and cooperation from the school to set the plan in motion.
"We're small enough, we can help students make it happen," Simpson says, noting the students overcame some early setbacks. "They don't understand 'can't,' they just do. It's really fun to watch."
ARK's first official act happened this February when volunteers created and passed out heart-shaped cards with lollipops and inspiring messages to students on Valentine's Day. The club, which has 10 active members, also hung posters around campus with tear-off slips offering everything from jokes to quotations about forgiveness, beauty, health and strength.
Members passed out pens, purchased through a donation from professor Gary Wilson, that were printed with the advice, "Every Grin is a Win."
"Now they are just circulating everywhere," Mantych says. "It's pretty cool."
They hope to attract 100 people to "James and the Chocolate Factory Walk."
"I want this to be the best event for Lili and Katie. I want this to be successful for them," Stacy Fulkerson says.
"Witness the love that family has for James," Herrera says. "When you are around them, their positivity and love and caring come through. They are so loving, you just want to help."
Mantych, a single mom with a healthy 3-year-old son named Malachi, majors in computer science and says she wants to pursue a doctoral degree and start a logistics company. Herrera, majoring in accounting, finance and management, says she wants to be a certified public accountant. The students say they hope ARK continues after they graduate.
"It's hitting home. It's part of our Elmhurst community," Herrera says of the club, which grew out of that first, brief meeting with James.
"Why did this happen to James? I honestly think he was made this way to change the world through others," Jeff Fulkerson says. "We don't think James knows what's going on, but somehow he's changing the world."
With the help of a full-time nurse, James is in the third grade at Stevenson Elementary School in Elk Grove Village. He will, of course, join Herrera and Mantych at the walk in his honor.
"It makes me feel good that James has touched so many lives," Stacy Fulkerson says. "I feel like he's done so much."