We hear it on the local news and see it on our social media feeds — people, all around us, are in pain. But members of our community rarely sit idly by and allow a neighbor to suffer. No material gift or dollar amount can make up for the loss of life, health or security, but those on the receiving end of a collaborative gift say the kindness behind the offering was elemental to the healing process — that the thought really did mean everything.
Life after loss
After Rusty Hendricks’ life was cut short in a freak accident, his wife and three children faced a grueling road back from despair. the Generosity of friends and strangers has helped fuel their journey.
Rusty Hendricks’ funeral drew a standing room only crowd. Guests filled the pews, lined the walls, herded in doorways and shed an ocean of tears. He wasn’t famous, just a kindhearted man who amassed friends during his 36 years.
Rusty died quickly when a jack collapsed while he was working under the family Ford. Rusty’s little girl heard the crash, called out to him and cried for help when he did not respond. His wife and sons came running, but there was nothing they could do to save him. The idea of their helplessness, both then and in the aftermath, accelerated the overwhelming public sadness.
Rusty’s widow Teresa says the day of the service was a blur. “I just remember feeling very scared.”
She and Rusty met as students at Bryan Adams High School, when she was growing up in Old Lake Highlands.
“We were just friends for a long time. We were very different,” she remembers with a smile. “He was a skater, and then a cowboy. I guess he was figuring out who he was. He was quiet, until you got to know him, but always sweet — the kindest person I ever met.”
They started dating after high school, at 19, and Teresa says she knew instantly that she wanted to marry him. It took him a little longer, she says. They broke up for a while, but then one night he left a note on her car. “Call me,” it said.
They married in 1999. Teresa looked forward to building the kind of family she had wanted since her own childhood.
“My mom was a single mom raising me, and I was so grateful to have someone to share my life and a family with,” Teresa says. “So sure he was always going to be there.”
Rusty and Teresa lived modestly. He worked fulltime as a roofing supply salesman. He sometimes offered the kids commission for delivering sales fliers to neighbors. They giggle today about it being a waste of time. He probably fretted about finances, Teresa says, but afterhours, he was always 100-percent present. Teresa was a stay-at-home mom, a role she relished. They saved for family vacations — Port Aransas, Galveston, Colorado. Rusty loved fishing, camping and the outdoors. Most Sundays, they went to church. They had a mortgage and one car, the broken-down one that would end Rusty’s life.
After the accident, Teresa’s overwhelming grief was intensified by the thought of supporting three children on her own. Two sleepless nights after the accident, Teresa finally succumbed to exhaustion on a guest bed at her mother’s house. Hours later, her mom roused her with relieving news.
“I woke up to my mom saying, ‘They are helping you. You are going to be OK!’ And we both just sat there and cried.”
They had learned that church members were collecting enough to help Teresa continue house payments, which would buy her time to look for a job.
And classmates from Bryan Adams announced an auction to raise enough for a new car. The organizers petitioned auction items from local sports teams. When 2011 Dallas Cowboys teammates Terrence Newman and Bradie James heard the story, they bought a car, a new Chevrolet Aveo, and had it delivered.
Grinning, Teresa says she had no idea who the players were, but 15-year-old Samuel was a diehard fan. His dad knew and loved the players too.
“I was shocked and surprised, and really glad to have a car,” Samuel says.
“It was surreal,” Teresa says. “I couldn’t comprehend that someone was just buying us a car. I wanted nothing to do with that other car — in the end I donated it — but I certainly didn’t have the money for a new car. That Aveo, it meant everything. We love it. It will be in our family forever, as long as it’s puttering along.”
ESPN radio and TV personality Tim Cowlishaw publicized the fundraising efforts in his Dallas Morning News column.
Friends and strangers alike gave generously, Teresa says.
A local businessman, Kenny Johnson, purchased thousands of dollars worth of auction items — an autographed football, a Marc Jacobs purse, tickets to a Rangers game — and gave them to the Hendricks children.
Sara says she still has the purse. She remembers other kindnesses, too.
“I expected my family to help us, but I was really surprised by all the people we didn’t know helping us,” she says. “Like, someone went to the book fair at school and brought us a whole bunch of books.”
When they returned to their house, after two weeks with Teresa’s mom, the refrigerator and pantry was stocked, the children remember.
“Everyday, food would just show up,” Samuel says.
It’s been four years. Thanks in large part to those fundraising efforts, the Hendricks family kept their home, located just north of Lake Highlands.
They all chip-in to tackle the things Rusty used to handle. Samuel and Matthew mow the lawn, Teresa learned to make the pumpkin pancakes her husband had perfected (not quite as good as his, she admits) and, last December, she climbed a ladder to her roof and strung holiday lights.
“I am proud that we have learned to do things, but I am sad that we have to,” Teresa says.
Late on a Tuesday night — after a day of classes, band and sports — Sara, now 13, is still wearing her cheerleading uniform, and everyone is eating pizza while discussing Halloween plans.
When the conversation turns to Rusty, Teresa tears up, and soon they all are crying. Sara moves from her seat at the kitchen table to her mom’s lap.
They hired therapists, joined support groups and slowly began to accept and adapt to this new life.
“You don’t ever get over it,” says Matthew, 12, the quietest of the children. “You learn to live with what happened. You don’t have to get over it.”
The children are witty — frequently cracking jokes that leave Mom perplexed. “Right over my head,” Teresa will say. Overly mature for their ages, they speak of futures filled with college, careers, adventures and family.
“I am going to get a full ride to TCU, go to Baylor med school, become a dentist, hire Mom as a receptionist,” Sara says. They all laugh.
Teresa believes loss has made her children more sensitive to others’ struggles. Last summer Samuel went with the church on a mission trip to New York City, one of his many ventures in volunteerism.
Teresa works for a mortgage company and recently bought a new car.
Samuel is learning to drive in the Aveo.
“We already call it his car,” Teresa says.
The family Rusty left behind is, most of the time and all things considered, happy and healthy. Teresa is not sure how they got here. It’s a combination of help from others, faith and grit, she supposes.
“Rusty was my partner and friend. I have loved him for so many years, and it has taken me almost five years to simply accept the life I have been given,” she says.
Though she sometimes still feels slighted, she also is filled with gratitude — for her children, for everyone who has supported her and for the gifts her husband gave her.
“He made me a wife and mother and for that I will always be grateful for his life.”
Trial by fire
As Brad and Michelle Miller were settling into life as homeowners and parents, a fire threatened their children’s lives and cost them their material possessions, including their house. Then, good things began to happen.
Brad and Michelle Miller are rabid fans of their respective alma maters’ sports teams, and Labor Day weekend 2014 was shaping into one epic day in sports. It was not necessarily about the games, but that the Millers — forty-somethings bound by the restrictions of parenting two small children — would be there, in person, to root for their guys. Brad, donning purple and gold, flew to Houston to rally his Louisiana State University Tigers. Michelle lodged with family near University of Texas at Austin, where the Longhorns would face North Texas’ Mean Green.
Brad’s mom, JoAnn, came from Louisiana to look after Mitch and Quinn, then ages 5 and 3, the family dog, Roux, and the cozy L Streets home they all inhabited.
Because JoAnn doesn’t like traveling alone, Brad’s brother Jeff joined her.
They brought toys, including a miniature fire engine for Mitch. They shopped at Albertsons and made pizzas for dinner.
After tucking in the kids, Jeff fell asleep watching television in an upstairs room; JoAnn slept near the children’s rooms in a downstairs master bedroom.
It was only a couple hours before all hell broke loose.
The fire started in the attic, ostensibly ignited by an aging kitchen can light.
Roux was the first to notice something askew. Her paws click-clacking on hardwood alerted JoAnn, who rushed upstairs to rouse Jeff.
It took several minutes to comprehend the magnitude of the situation, says Jeff, an ex-military officer. His mom was crying, sure, but she was known to be sensitive.
“In the Navy, we trained constantly for fires. I know what to do in a fire, but this did not look serious at first. More like a melting light.”
But then a flame licked at the fixture’s edge, and he understood. Dialing 911, he instructed the others to move outside. A frantic passerby who had noticed fire shooting out the roof pounded at the door — “You need to get out, now!”
As the sirens’ wails closed in and bed-headed neighbors congregated, Jeff dialed his brother.
At a Houston bar, Brad and his buddies were basking in pre-game hype when he received the phone call, which brought his revelry — and life as he knew it — to a screeching halt.
“You talk about the needle skidding off the record,” Brad says. “Jeff says, ‘First, the kids are OK, but you’ve had a house fire.’”
Brad, who could hear his mother weeping in the background, remained in a state resembling shock until his next-morning flight landed in Dallas.
“The minute I saw Michelle, there at the airport, I lost it.”
Michelle, who did not learn about the fire until that morning, says she stayed surprisingly composed. “Usually I am not the strong one,” she says, but this time Brad was the one bursting into tears.
“I wasn’t thinking at all about the house at that point. I was only thinking about the kids,” Michelle says. Brad finishes, “Yeah, all I could think of was wrapping my arms around them and squeezing them.”
As he drove home, Brad remembers wondering, “Geez, can’t we catch a break?” But that self-pity was fleeting. The Millers would soon discover that — even as their children stood dreary-eyed on the front lawn waiting for firefighters to extinguish the blaze —their neighbors were launching into helpful action.
Jennifer Wilcox, a local insurance agent with several clients in the neighborhood, walked toward the smoke in her robe. The Millers weren’t clients, but she knew them, and took the displaced family to her house for the night. “They gave us a place to sleep and washed our clothes. The clothes needed to be washed several times,” Jeff recalls. “That fire smell is something that doesn’t go away. My tablet that I was using that night still smells of it.”
Friend Laura Frazure collected salvageable clothing from the house and began laundering loads. Neighbor Laura Stead organized a donation drive.
Parents and teachers from Lake Highlands Elementary, where Mitch had just started school, and members of the White Rock Running Co-op (led by neighbor Paris Sunio) started collecting cash, clothing and gift cards. Brad was training for a marathon, and his running buddies that week presented him with a pair of new Brooks athletic shoes. An impromptu charity run brought in a few thousand dollars.
“I took about two weeks off running and then started up training again,” he says. “It was therapeutic.” Brad and Michelle’s employers, American Heart Association and Southwest Airlines, extended the couple extra time off with pay. Michelle’s coworkers took her on a shopping spree for new clothes and, before the holidays, held an ornament party to replenish destroyed decorations.
They spent a few weeks with the Frazures, whose porch filled with donations.
“Gift cards, clothes, groceries, toys, a dog bowl for Roux — and these were not just from friends, but strangers too — like an anonymous $100 gift card. It was unbelievable,” Michelle says.
The response solidified their conviction that they did not want to live anywhere else.
Today the Millers’ home is a beautiful contemporary slate gray abode with wide windows and a spacious interior. The children, now 6 and 5, enjoy enviable upstairs bedrooms.
After spending weeks with their friends and then 13 months at The Haven Lake Highlands apartments, the Millers decided to turn the loss into an opportunity to rebuild.
The home, while intentionally “not a McMansion.” stands out in its size and beauty, which prompted one of Brad’s friends to jokingly imply he was lucky his house burned down. Brad did not like that joke.
“We love this new house, but we worked for it,” Brad says. “I would rather not have the experience and take back the old house.”
Same goes for his mom, who cried for three weeks, who still cries when she talks about that night and hasn’t visited since the fire.
“She blames herself,” Jeff says.
Brad adds, “She doesn’t understand that it could have happened to any of us, that she is a hero.”
The kids talk about the fire. It often shows up in their artwork. The Millers watch Mitch and Quinn for signs of fear, distress “… even pyromania,” Brad says, only halfway joking.
He believes it is “how you deal with something challenging that shapes you as a person,” and while the situation was not what he would have wanted for his family, he is proud of the way they, and the Lake Highlands neighborhood, responded.
“We are a strong family in a strong community, and that makes us really lucky.”
As the Millers built their new home, friends came by and wrote notes of love and encouragement on the bricks.
“Even though we all knew the brick would be painted over, their notes of hope, encouragement and love would forever be a tangible piece of our rebuilt home.”
energetic and fun-loving, Hannah English had always been the type to jump at the opportunity to help others. Then, one day, she was the one in need.
Hannah English’ dark pixie haircut amplifies her wide, expressive eyes and her ever-present smile. She loves her short hair. A few months ago she was bald, and she liked that, too.
Hannah buzzes about friends, camp and music. She seems like any 9-year-old girl — that is, except when she discusses chemotherapy. Then she becomes serious — not depressed or upset (as someone whose childhood has been interrupted by a life-altering illness might be), but just full of concentration.
“The biggest treatment comes in a huge bag of methotrexate that I get through an IV drip,” Hannah says. “Then I have to stay in the hospital three days in case of side effects.” Those might include abdominal pain, nausea, fatigue, body aches or pancreatitis, which she has had twice.
Right after she was diagnosed, doctors placed a medical port under her skin, through which they administer medication. It will remain in place until she finishes treatment. On her waist, she wears a glucose sensor synced to an application on her parents’ cellphones. The chemotherapy has caused her to suffer from symptoms that mirror diabetes.
Despite setbacks, she is optimistic.
“If the results of that last spinal [tap] are good,” Hannah says, “my next spinal in February will be my last. My remission date is Feb. 18, 2016. That means if things go well, I could be through with treatment.”
Hannah was diagnosed with leukemia in October 2013.
It was during her brother Cole’s fifth birthday party that Hannah felt rocks in her stomach, she says.
She went upstairs, to her room in the English’s big Lake Highlands home, and changed out of her jeans, into something looser-fitting.
“We thought it might be my pants that were making my stomach feel weird,” Hannah says.
But it only worsened, and later that night, the Englishes were in the emergency room at Medical City.
“We went in thinking she probably had appendicitis,” her dad Jeff English says. “We came out with a leukemia diagnosis.”
A heavy necklace is made of densely threaded beads, each representing a hospital treatment. One, engraved with a smiling face, “represents the day you lose your hair,” Hannah says.
All told, Hannah has spent 79 nights in the hospital, her father says. But there are other children, many who became Hannah’s friends, who have longer chains. Some have several of them, notes Lisa English, Hannah’s mom.
The family acknowledges that others who entered the pediatric wing of the same hospital never came out.
Jeff shows photos of a grinning, hairless Hannah surrounded by friends at Camp I Hope.
Hannah says she’s been to three concerts. She’s obsessed with music and plays the guitar. Her favorite band is Foo Fighters. Jeff took Hannah to see them last time they came to town. “She warned me that they might drop some F bombs,” he says, laughing.
Living with leukemia is tough, Hannah says, but it can prove a persuasive tool when talking your parents into taking you to rock concerts.
Most recently, she attended the Katy Perry show in Costa Rica, courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of North Texas. Though Hannah requested this, it was still a shock.
“The Make-A-Wish people told her Katy Perry is very popular,” Lisa says. “They asked if she wanted to choose anything else, but Hannah said, ‘No, I want to meet Katy Perry.’ She loves all her songs and she sings them and dances around in her room and has her posters all over her walls.”
Foundation representatives showed up at a recent Friday pep rally at Merriman Park Elementary, where Hannah is in the fourth grade, to tell her the wish had been granted.
The students were all cheering, Hannah recalls, and says she was stunned.
“We are so proud of Hannah as she has fought and battled this cancer,” Principal Katie Kirkpatrick Barrett told the children. “She’s our campus hero.”
The whole English family spent a long weekend at the beach, and Perry spent an hour chatting with Hannah, occasionally pausing to engage in one of Cole’s knock-knock jokes. At the end of the night, Perry plucked the hair scrunchie from her ponytail and handed it to Hannah, “For when your hair grows out,” she told her. The hair-tie remains wrapped around an autographed Perry poster.
The Merriman Park Elementary community has suffered its share of cancer illnesses. Longtime teacher Beth Lyons was diagnosed with leukemia in 2013. Hannah volunteered at a lemonade stand fundraiser for Lyons before her own diagnosis a few months later.
“She would let me rest in her classroom when I felt bad,” Hannah says.
Jeff says he and Lisa often checked with Lyons, since she was receiving the same medicines as Hannah.
“Hannah would never complain, so we asked Lisa how she felt as a way to gauge how Hannah might be feeling,” Jeff says.
Another student, Malik Little, who has since moved to another district, also learned he had lymphoma that year.
Each time someone is diagnosed with a serious illness, people unite financially and in spirit, offering time, money and even blood. Two years ago, Lake Highlands neighbors staged a blood drive for Hannah and others who need transfusions due to cancer-related illnesses.
Following the three diagnoses, Merriman Park students raised $15,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and news anchor Clarice Tinsley featured them in her Hometown Heroes segment early last year.
As her hair grows in and she anticipates the future, Hannah grapples with her love of music and desire to help others.
“I want to be a doctor,” she says. “But maybe go on tour a few months out of the year.”