It's community's gift of compassion that stands out

Editor's note: Jeff Engelhardt, a senior journalism major at Southern Illinois University, writes about the year since the stabbing deaths of three of his family in their Hoffman Estates home.

They say you never forget the first.

The first kiss, the first car, the first heartbreak. Some provide fond memories, others pain, but they all last a lifetime.

Well, I had plenty of "firsts" this past year, but only one real first that will last a lifetime. Sure, there was Thanksgiving when Laura wasn't there to make stuffing and watch James Bond movies with me. My 21st birthday, when my dad wasn't there to take a drink with me, and a looming college graduation where my grandma will not be able to hug me, but those are fleeting moments of heartache that lead to memories of joy. Those painful moments could not overshadow the only real first I experienced in the last year.

The first time I have ever experienced unconditional compassion.

In the same world where a man can use a kitchen knife to go on a murderous rampage on a loving family, there are thousands of people who will sacrifice and give freely while asking for nothing in return.

I have seen a church congregation offer their homes and food, raise thousands of dollars and ask only for more ways to help in return.

There was a high school of students that wore purple shirts and green bracelets in honor of one girl who they may have never known. They wrote beautiful poems, drew gorgeous pictures and came together to help each other and my family through a difficult time.

Then there was the softball team. A group of amazing young women who played every inning of every game for a first base coach and a reckless infielder. This compassion expanded off the field as they visited my mom, did yard work and took care of their fallen team member's gravesite better than they probably take care of their own rooms.

The last - and most unexpected - source of compassion came from you.

I do not know everyone reading this, but I do know thousands of people did more for my family than they will ever know. Maybe you are the woman who gave me $1,000, only asking that I show the same compassion to someone in need later in my life.

Or maybe you said a prayer, wrote a letter or just told those closest to you that you loved them because the situation showed you how quickly a life can be taken.

I don't need to know your name to know the whole community gave my family strength when we needed it most and kept us standing when it felt like falling down was the only option.

They say you never forget your first, and I will never forget the first time this community showed me no tragedy can overcome the unconditional compassion of thousands.

Thank you.

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