Area family extends kindnesses during their grief Christmas Day
The family of Renee Soetaert knew Christmas 2006 would be especially difficult.
It had to be.
The McLouth area woman died unexpectedly on Dec. 1, at age 45. But her husband, Mark, and other family members, including sister Estee Willis, knew every day is difficult for many other people.
And so they decided to use their memories of Renee's generosity as a springboard to help others.
"She never really talked about it to anybody, she never wanted any praise or anything," Mark Soetaert said about his late wife. "She always gave money to charities, here and there, especially children's charities. It was something she always believed in and always did, but never wanted any praise."
As Christmas approached, Mark and other family members felt compelled to help others, as a tribute of sorts to Renee. They made telephone calls about serving meals to others at Christmas, but were told they were too late in volunteering.
But then Mark, who works for Sears Holding Co., owner of Sears and Kmart, used his employee discount and $400 to buy 52 blankets from Kmart.
"We cleaned out two stores in Topeka," he said.
And on Christmas Day, the blankets and family members were loaded up and they headed for Kansas City, Mo., to the Linwood Boulevard Salvation Army, where hundreds of people were eating a free holiday meal.
"We pulled up, and I ran in and I asked the lady did they mind if we handed the blankets to people," said Estee Willis, Tonganoxie.
Estee and Jack Willis' young son, Jackson, distributed the 52 blankets to people who had just eaten Christmas dinner. And watching Jackson, and the people's reaction to the gifts they received, helped ease the family's pain.
"I think she would have enjoyed it," Mark said about his wife. "She just loved Jackson to death. He came out here all the time. To see him handing out those blankets, I'm sure she was watching. ... I know my wife would have really wanted all of those people to have those blankets."
But 52 blankets is only a beginning. Mark and Estee believe they will do more this year. They plan to collect as much money and as many blankets as possible.
"We're going to do this again," Mark said. "It worked very well. This year, we're going to try to start a little earlier. We're going to put a little note in the paper that this year it will be from family and friends."
And along the way, as family members reached out on Christmas Day, through their grief, they came to a realization.
"It made what was a very sad occasion for all of us, it actually brightened up our day a little bit," Mark said. "That was something I really didn't think was possible. It helped us."