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After Year of Tragedy, Students Plan to Remember Fallen Friends

Former Lincoln-Way Central student council member Kim Phillips saw too many of her classmates die young, so she and others have organized an event in June to remember them.

Kim Phillips has been recognized as Greatest Person of the Day on The Huffington Post, a feature that spotlights ordinary and extraordinary people in Patch communities whose acts of courage, determination, volunteerism and compassion have made a difference. These are people who inspire and energize others to strengthen their communities and improve lives.

Originally published May 22

Beloved band director Steve Nedzel, of , died nearly one year ago after falling down stairs at his Chicago apartment. It was a major tragedy that struck the high school community, which responded with touching tributes that included a decorated band director's tower outside of the school.

Over the course of the next 12 months, New Lenox was hit with a number of these tragedies, with the victims younger and the deaths more sudden. 

Brett Van Etten drowned in Lake Michigan. Patrick Juris died in bed from a rupture in his abdominal wall. Patrick Mizwicki was hit by a car during cross country practice. Bart Lenz and Zach Orel's car hit a pipeline and exploded. Tommy Schuman died in his sleep from an undiagnosed cardiac condition. Matthew Zack lost control of a motorized scooter and hit a tree. 

"I cannot handle this anymore," one student tweeted after the most recent of deaths. "Did the entire town of New Lenox walk under a ladder?" another person wondered. 

But where there is darkness, light.

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'It's Insane, It's Overwhelming'

graduate Kim Phillips, who was the student council secretary in high school, saw what was happening around her and wanted a way to remember the classmates who were passing too young. 

With the help of the village, District 210 officials and other former students, Phillips has organized an event called "Remembering Our New Lenox Schools' Angels." Friends and family members are invited to release balloons into the sky to symbolize the growing list of people the school community has lost.

"I think it’s going I think it’s going to bring our community really close togther," Phillips said. "It’s horrible to see all these tragedies, but it’s nice to see these people come together."

The event is at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 24, at the in New Lenox. Everyone is expected to bring their own balloons to release. 

The balloons should have no string, and you may write a message on them before sending them to the sky. The color of the balloons will denote which school someone attended when passing: red for Lincoln-Way Central, orange for Lincoln-Way West, blue for District 122, green for Providence Catholic and yellow for St. Jude.

T-shirts are also on sale at in New Lenox for $11, and Phillips is working to get speakers to represent each school.

The tragic year New Lenox has endured isn't the half of it. Phillips created a Facebook event, which as of May 21 showed 1,600 people attending and more than 4,200 more invited. 

As word spread about the event, thousands of people were reached and the names added to the list grew to nearly 250 people, dating back to the class of 1970. 

Phil Brodnick and Jacob Lowell died serving their country in the Middle East. Kevin Farrell was hit by a car while talking on his cell phone outside his home. Ryan Burke was shot after a gun his brother held accidentally discharged. 

"I just added two names to the list within the last two weeks," Phillips said. "The past year I think we lost five young people. It’s insane. It’s overwhelming."

Stacy Gilbert, another 2009 Central graduate, reached out to Phillips after hearing about the event. She previously dated one name on the list and organized a balloon release for him when he died. She wanted to help any way possible. 

"It’s been pretty hard, especially being away at school," Gilbert said. "It’s sad when we do all come together it’s for those reasons. I think this memorial is not just for another death, but to celebrate the lives of all of our friends."

A Second Chance at Life

Phillips knows how lucky she is to be alive instead of joining the growing list of names on the Facebook event she created. 

She was diagnosed with a heart condition when she was 19, shortly after graduating from Central in 2009. She's been hospitalized for it four times, once in October 2010 after doctors said she nearly lost her life.

While driving home from running errands, she said she felt a pain like a "knife stabbing my chest." Her condition requires she wear a heart monitor, and the company called her after she registered 280 beats per minute. She was immediately taken to the hospital and stayed for a week and a half. 

"Doctors and nurses said I was so lucky, and I am," Phillips said. "I feel like I got a second chance at life, so I should do something to give back to the community. I’m just so thankful to be alive."

When she got back from the hospital, she was moved by what awaited: Her room was filled with balloons and she had a big stack of cards on her desk.

Being in and out of the hospital, she's amassed quite the collection of get-well-soon balloons in the last couple of years. Now she hopes to send the same well-wishing to the skies for those our community has seen go far too soon. 

Phillips said the memorial will also serve as a way for loved ones to come together.

"I hope it gives them some closure," she said. "I think it’s going to be a very emotional and touching event. I hope people remember the good things and the good times they had with the people who passed away." 

Read more Greatest Person features on Patch.

Peggy Kuch May 22, 2012 at 01:07 PM
Remind folks not to use Mylar balloons just in case the balloon comes into contact with power lines....
Michele V May 22, 2012 at 01:10 PM
The balloons are a nice idea, but not so great for the environment. Isn't there a better alternative?
nick May 22, 2012 at 01:40 PM
Michael are u kidding me? 7 kids have died in the past 2.5 yrs (4 bein close friends) and you are worried about the environment? Thts whats wrong with liberals. Now im gonna let 100000000 balloons go juat in rememberance of them
Jared May 22, 2012 at 01:42 PM
Planting trees would be a nice way to memorialize the fallen knights.
Phil May 22, 2012 at 03:30 PM
Kim, I appreciate that at such a young age you yourself have so much respect for life and love for all those who have been lost so early in life. It is a wonderful way to remember them in a positive light and to celebrate their lives with all of those who would like to pay their respects. My family will be there to remember all of them.
Alyssa May 23, 2012 at 02:48 AM
nick, if a power line went down it could also cause more problems for other peoples safety, but i totally understand but i don't think Michael was trying to insult anything...
Michele V May 23, 2012 at 02:29 PM
First of all, it's Michele. Learn to read, or at least spell. Second, thank you for volunteering to clean up all the balloon scraps out of trees, fields, etc.
sherrie wilcox May 23, 2012 at 10:38 PM
My daughter and grandchildren send balloons to her husband their daddy on certain holidays. they attach a note to him. If i were to find one of those or anything like that, it would be no problem for me to clean up. it is worth it knowing the reason it was sent off. Have some compassion people. Just call me Loving Grandmother.
Jan D June 19, 2012 at 03:13 PM
Great idea. I am thankful that our son Alex Dombrowski will be included. I am so grateful that so many of his friends still keep in touch - "It's A Keeper Thing". His friends know what this means

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