Returning the favor
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.

Vulnerable again

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.