When a young Omaha widow returned home after placing a wreath on her late husband’s grave, she couldn’t believe what she saw.
The front porch was filled and the driveway was lined Saturday with hundreds of bags of groceries, paper goods, gift cards and toys for her 6-year-old son, Caleb.
“I was stunned,” Jennifer Kennedy said. “I couldn’t imagine who would have done this for us.”
She soon found out — residents in her Stone Creek neighborhood of northwest Omaha, near 156th and Ida Streets. The gift drive was organized by Jennifer Jones, 17, a senior at nearby Concordia Junior-Senior High School and daughter of Kevin and Michel Jones.
The student and others had distributed more than 500 fliers throughout the neighborhood, along with plastic bags donated by Hy-Vee.
Then a posse of students picked up donations between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday and delivered them to the Kennedy home.
After Jennifer Kennedy arrived home, Jen Jones and friends carried the bags inside. “It was way more than I ever thought,” Jen said. “It was incredible. It was important to give the community an opportunity to help.”
Others, too, have displayed kindness. In fact, ever since the vigil and the funeral Mass at a packed church for her late husband, Christopher, Jennifer Kennedy has been overwhelmed by displays of sympathy and hope.
Chris and Jennifer weren’t native Omahans. He was from Oshkosh, Neb., and she is from Columbus, though they had lived in Omaha for several years.
The couple met as students at Wayne State College in Wayne, Neb.
“Some people say, ‘How can you live in a big city? You don’t know anyone,’” she said. “I feel like we know so many — from work, from our church, from our community. But our neighborhood has been the biggest surprise.”
The biggest shock, though, was her husband’s death on the eve of Thanksgiving.
They were preparing to leave for Columbus, where Chris planned to hunt geese that afternoon with Jennifer’s father, retired Columbus Scotus High School teacher and coach Vern Younger.
But Chris told his wife and child to go without him. Then he went inside the garage, and Jennifer heard a boom.
He had killed himself with a 12-gauge shotgun, three days before his 33rd birthday. Douglas County sheriff’s detective John Pankonin ruled the death a suicide.
Jennifer said she is at a loss to explain it. Her father, who said he loved Chris like a son, said relatives are “crushed, disbelieving.”
Chris had excelled in nearly a decade at Infogroup, his salary reaching six figures. Michael Bizzarri, a former boss who became a close friend, tailgated with Chris at the College World Series and made Husker football road trips with him.
The Kennedys moved into their new Stone Creek home in March.
In May, they vacationed in the Bahamas and took a photo with Caleb.
That was such a favored snapshot that Jennifer made copies and inserted them into Christmas cards, which she mailed the day before Thanksgiving — hours before Chris’ death.
Jennifer returned to teaching this week at St. James/Seton, buoyed by her sixth-graders, who said “welcome back” and “we missed you.”
She said she thinks of other families who endure the holiday season after losing a loved one. But she is grateful that she and Caleb have received such support, including from people they haven’t met.
“We saw the true meaning of the holiday,” she said, “unveiled through the acts of charity in our own neighborhood, Stone Creek.”
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