Not long after she came home to find her entire front yard raked by an anonymous Samaritan, Alisa Blanchette buckled her four children into the car and headed toward the McDonald's in Manteno.
We're going to do something nice for someone else, she told them. We're going to pay for the order of the person behind us, even if we don't know them. Won't that be fun?
When she pulled up to the drive-thru window, Blanchette paid for both her family's meal and the cheeseburger of the stranger behind her. The kids cheered and excitedly watched out the back window as the man was told of the family's gesture.
Alisa Blanchette couldn't help but feel her life had come full circle. Just months earlier, someone bought her coffee as she sat crying in the same drive-thru line. She had been newly widowed, left with four young children and a breast cancer diagnosis. She wondered where she'd find the strength to get through the day, let alone the upcoming months and years.
She found her answer in that cup of coffee: Manteno, a small Kankakee County town along the railroad tracks, would give her what she needed to pull through.
There have been grand gestures, including silent auctions, a 5K run and pie sales, since her husband, Cory — a beloved special education teacher and wrestling coach at the local high school — died in November 2011. Even more frequently, there have been small acts of kindness such as hanging Christmas lights or buying her coffee.
Some residents pooled their money to buy the family a television after their house was burglarized in April. An anonymous benefactor gave them money to help cover the mortgage, while others helped pay utility bills.
But more than anything, Manteno has given Alisa Blanchette time.
Time to grieve. Time to pull herself together. Time to focus on her children and build a new life.
"How do you thank an entire town?" she asks. "I think about it constantly. We have a huge debt of gratitude that we can never repay, but we can follow their example and do kind things for other people."
To that end, Blanchette and her children have been performing a series of kindhearted gestures around Manteno in recent weeks. They have baked cookies for the Police Department, brought coffee to schoolteachers and handed out candy bars to Salvation Army bell ringers.
"We have seen the goodness in people over the past year," Blanchette says. "You just can't take that kind of generosity for granted. You want to pay it forward, which is something Cory would do."
Cory Blanchette, 37, was jogging on a dark country road before sunrise Nov. 1, 2011, when he was hit and killed instantly by a passing car. His dark clothing made it impossible for the driver to see him in time, and the iPod he was listening to apparently prevented him from hearing the vehicle's approach.
No citations were issued, and the accident was ruled pedestrian error.
Cory Blanchette was a native son, a born-and-bred Mantenoan who, a year earlier, gave up a good-paying job as a union pipe fitter to return to his alma mater and teach. Even before becoming a teacher, he had coached wrestling and football there for more than a decade.
At the time of his death, Alisa Blanchette, who serves as Manteno's village clerk, had just finished her last round of chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer. The little savings the couple had squirreled away had been used for medical bills and for Cory Blanchette to go back to school for his teaching certificate.
But before Alisa Blanchette could even grasp her uncertain future, Manteno stepped up to help.
Friends, neighbors and strangers in the town of nearly 10,000 raised money by selling scented candles and holding raffles at sporting events. A March auction at the Will County Fair Atrium drew hundreds of people and spurred media coverage about the small town's big heart.
A few weeks after those stories ran, however, the Blanchettes' home was burglarized while Alisa was out running errands.
The intruders kicked through the front door, opened the garage and backed a vehicle inside so it could be loaded, according to police reports. If the thieves came expecting to find cash and expensive items in the wake of the fundraiser, they left disappointed.
The money had been deposited at a local bank, where it was used to pay bills and establish education funds for the children, ages 3 to 8. The burglars took a television, a laptop filled with old pictures, a fireproof safe with family videos and Cory's wedding band.
"The things they took had no value to anyone, except to me," Alisa Blanchette says.
The home invasion — far more than property loss — unnerved Blanchette. She and the children spent the next few nights at a friend's house, wondering if they would ever feel safe enough to return. She hated that the place where she most felt her late husband's presence was now the spot where she felt most vulnerable.
"I didn't know what we were going to do," she says. "The kids were afraid to come back. I didn't want to sleep there. It was just too much."
Manteno, again, came to her rescue. The Police Department put a patrol car outside her house. Friends hurried to install a security system. And everywhere she went, people told her how outraged they were.
No one was arrested for the crime. Regardless, Alisa Blanchette decided her family would not be victims.
"So many people were angry about what happened, I didn't feel alone anymore," Blanchette says. "I realized that I had so many people on my side. We felt the whole town's strength."
A town's love
As the year progressed, Blanchette felt herself grow stronger with each passing day, week and month. It helped that the children kept her busy and needed her attention, particularly her 6-year-old daughter, Addison, who seemed to take her father's death the hardest.
Addison, who looks the most like Cory and inherited his playful spirit, had a special bond with her father. From the moment he named her after one of the cross streets where his beloved Cubs played, he had doted on her.
"My dad? Well, I don't have one," Addison says. "He died."
Manteno, however, continuously searched for ways to keep Cory Blanchette's spirit alive for Addison and her siblings. They paid tribute to him at the local high school graduation in the spring and organized a 5K in his memory in July.
The race was held on what would have been his 38th birthday and was meant to give the family a happy distraction on an otherwise heartbreaking day. The participants all wore fluorescent T-shirts as a nod to the importance of wearing light-colored, reflective clothing while jogging.
Alisa Blanchette hopes future races or fundraisers will be used to establish a charitable foundation for Manteno residents in need.
"My children lost a father, and that's horrible," she says. "But they've also gained an entire town that loves them and looks out for them. I don't take that for granted."
When a relative arranged for a Blanchette's 8-year-old son, Luke, to throw out the first pitch at Cubs game, nearly a dozen people offered to help him practice his throw.
As much comfort as Manteno offered, Alisa Blanchette knew she couldn't stay in town for the anniversary of Cory's death on Nov. 1. She didn't want to stay at home and weep in front of the children, who seemed unaware of the date's significance. She didn't want to stare at the clock all day, reliving each heartbreaking moment from a year ago.
Even Halloween would be too painful for her. Cory had loved the holiday and insisted upon themed costumes for the entire family. In years past, they had been "Winnie the Pooh" characters, "Sesame Street" favorites and "Star Wars" heroes. She didn't have the heart to attempt that this year, especially given that last Halloween ended up being their final moments together as a family.
Instead, Alisa Blanchette decided to take the kids to Disney World for the week, to leave behind all the sad memories and concentrate on making happy ones. Once in Orlando, they could dress up as Disney characters and enjoy the day that meant so much to Cory.
And, true to form, Manteno helped with the plan. One friend arranged their itinerary, while others assembled goody bags and games to keep the kids busy on the 18-hour drive to Florida. It seemed the entire town knew about the trip before the Blanchette children did.
"We know we can't make everything better," said Manteno resident Jenny Stawick, who arranged the travel. "But if we can make things easier for Alisa for five minutes or a day or a week, everybody wants to do it."
About three weeks before they left, Alisa Blanchette organized a scavenger hunt for the kids in which they retrieved puzzle pieces from neighbors. Once they collected all the pieces, they assembled a jigsaw puzzle that informed them they were going to Disney World.
The kids jumped up and down, shrieking and clapping. Two of the girls ran to the bedroom and started packing their suitcases.
Magic Kingdom provided the refuge Blanchette needed. The long days kept her busy, making it impossible to dwell on the date while racing around the park and too tired to think about it when she got back to the hotel.
She knew, however, that others back in Manteno would be marking the anniversary and saying special prayers for the family. Blanchette wanted to acknowledge their kindness during the past year even if she couldn't stay in town to personally thank them.
She posted a giant banner in her front yard before she left so the whole town could see it while out trick-or-treating. The professionally printed sign was purple and white in homage to the local high school's colors.
"Thank you so much for your love and support this past year Manteno!!" the sign read. "Love, the Blanchette Family."
The trip's only hiccup happened on the way back to Chicago, when the alternator on Blanchette's car died and left the family stranded just outside Atlanta. Once again, strangers came to their aid, as the local towing company, repair shop and hotel went out of their way to make the family's unexpected stay as brief and comfortable as possible, Blanchette says.
"My children now say how much they love Georgia," she says. "They think the world is filled with good people who want to help others. After everything we've been through, it makes me happy they see the world that way."
While pumping gas Thursday morning in Manteno, Alisa Blanchette spotted Cory's uncle, Kenny Bertrand, at the nearby McDonald's. He waved her over and introduced her to Philip Schouten, an 86-year-old Manteno resident who lost both his legs in World War II.
Bertrand told her that Schouten had been the person who anonymously paid her electric bill for the past year. Alisa embraced Schouten, thanking him profusely for his generosity.
Schouten, who had never met Cory Blanchette but had followed his teams' exploits for years in the local paper, told her about losing his legs when he was 18. When it happened, he thought his life was over, but he was able to rebuild it one day at a time.
"I just want her to know she'll get through this," Schouten says. "I believe she will be OK."
With a clean bill of health and a plan to run for re-election as village clerk in the spring, Alisa Blanchette is starting to believe it too.
"For the first time in a year, I can finally say that today is better than it was a year ago," she says. "And I have Manteno to thank for it."