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Richard Sitler 

Bonus action photos from Friday's prep boys basketball game of Pinckneyville hosting Anna-Jonesboro.

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After losing her daughter, woman collects 'hope bags' for sick kids

CARBONDALE — It was every expectant mother’s nightmare: At 20 weeks pregnant, Christi Kearns went in for a regular checkup and learned her baby had no heartbeat.

“Her cause of death was umbilical cord,” said Kearns, a gymnastic coach who lives in Marion. “It was looped around her neck three times, and the third time it was looped back through. There was nothing they could have done — it would have happened eventually, because she was just growing into it.”

On Nov. 1, 2016, doctors at Carbondale Memorial Hospital induced labor. Her daughter, Elle, was born the next day.

“She was perfect,” Kearns said. “She had perfect little fingernails. When they flopped her out, her hand opened.”

Kearns and her husband — who have three other children, aged 14, 12 and 4 — were devastated.

“We had never had to plan a funeral, we had never had to plan for any of that, and we were forced, in those 24 hours, to just do all of that,” she said.

As they were leaving the hospital, the nurses and doctor who delivered Elle gave Kearns a bag that contained a framed poem, a book about loss and a stuffed bear. They said they hadn’t wanted her to leave the hospital empty-handed.

The kindness of that small gesture stayed with her.

“It was just the fact that strangers had taken the time to think about somebody’s pain,” Kearns said. “That really touched us, and over the next couple of weeks, we talked about it, and so we sat down with the kids and said, ‘What do you think about instead of giving each other gifts (for Christmas) … what if we give back to the hospital, and you guys can each go pick out a gift for a child?’ And they were like, ‘Yes, let’s do it, let’s go shopping right now.’”

Kearns posted about the plan, which she started calling the Elle Project, on her personal Facebook page. Friends and family donated 10 additional gifts, and a week later, Kearns dropped off 20 “hope bags” at Carbondale Memorial Hospital.

This year, the project has turned into “a ripple of hope,” Kearns said. Spreading the word via social media, Kearns had planned to collect 25 bags. Last Thursday, she dropped off 140 bags — each containing an activity, a book and a stuffed animal — for children admitted to the hospital. Nichole Fulkerson, a Carbondale Memorial Hospital nurse who helped deliver Elle, even rented a van to assist Kearns with the drop-off.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Carbondale Memorial Hospital staff members roll a cart full of hope bags into the hospital on Thursday morning, December 21, in Carbondale. The bags, which contain a book, stuffed animal and toy or activity, are given to children admitted to the hospital during the holidays.

Kearns said she hopes to someday provide bags similar to the one she received to mothers who have lost their babies.

“But I’m not healed enough to be there yet,” she said.

For now, she hopes the gifts will be a comfort to parents whose children are sick.

“You have that feeling of hopelessness, like, ‘Please help my child.’ You want to take away their pain and do whatever just to reach out and say, ‘It’s going to be OK, you’re going to make it through this,’” Kearns said.

The bags are tagged by age group and will be given to kids as they’re admitted to the hospital.

“They’re stuck, and kids don’t want to be stuck. So we wanted to give them something to do to distract them and take up their time while they were there,” Kearns said.

Although Kearns initially envisioned the project as something to help sick kids through the holiday season, people have been so generous with their donations that her new goal is to make sure every child in the pediatric unit receives something from the Elle Project throughout 2018.

The project has allowed Kearns to connect with other mothers who have lost children, which has helped her make some sense of the tragedy.

“It was amazing, the number of people that reached out to me, saying, ‘This happened to me at 28 weeks.’ ‘This happened to me at 18 weeks.’ ‘I just lost a baby at 14 weeks,’” Kearns said.

Still, she said, even after 13 months, the pain remains fresh.

“It’s a hole that will never be filled. Someone told me that right away that had lost a baby 20 years ago: your heart will never be healed. … But it can get more distant, and it can get fuzzy and patched. It just won’t be healed. But this most certainly helps, all these projects. Doing things, I feel like I’m doing things for her,” she said.

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Christmas brings Northeast blizzard, bitter cold in Midwest

CHICAGO — The good news for many in the Northeast and Midwest was that it has been a white Christmas. The bad news was that a blizzard swept into parts of New England and bitter cold enveloped much of the Midwest.

Even the usually rainy Pacific Northwest got the white stuff. The National Weather Service says it's only the sixth time since 1884 that downtown Portland had measurable snow — only an inch or two — on a Dec. 25.

A blizzard warning was issued Monday for portions of Maine and New Hampshire, with forecasters saying snow of up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) and wind gusts up to 50 mph (80 kph) could make travel "dangerous to impossible."

Most businesses were already shuttered on Christmas Day in New England. One of the few open was The Tobacconist cigar shop in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, where area-resident Dwayne Doherty said he welcomed the fresh blanket of snow.

"I'm actually happy," he said, chuckling as he made his way to his pick-up. "We haven't had snow on Christmas at all in the last few years. It's actually perfect."

States from Montana and the Dakotas to Wisconsin expected wind chill temperatures in places at 40 below zero (40 below Celsius), the National Weather Service said. The upper half of Iowa and northern Illinois also braced for subzero temperatures.

Minnesota was experiencing its most frigid Christmas Day since 1996, with wind chills as cold as 35 degrees below zero, KSTP-TV reported. The National Weather Service warned that those whose skin was exposed in such conditions could get frostbite in as little as 15 minutes.

Snow amounts in the Midwest were not large for this time of year. A storm system that swept from Nebraska through Iowa dropped around 2 inches of snow on Chicago, the weather service said.

That was just enough to provide a picturesque backdrop for those gathering for Christmas dinners in the Chicago area. But it wasn't enough to cause havoc either on roadway or airport runaways.

Chicago's O'Hare International Airport was reporting just six cancelations and average delays of only 15 minutes around noon Monday. There were no cancellations at the city's other major airport, Midway, and delays were less than 15 minutes on average.

The nation's third largest city had comparatively little snow for the season until the weekend — just over 2 inches (5 centimeters) in all, the National Weather Service said.

The city of Milwaukee had 103 salt trucks treating slick spots Monday, according to WITI-TV. The trucks were using treated salt that's deployed when temperatures drop below 15 degrees.

In addition to slowing travel in New England, the storm was responsible for some power outages. Eversource reported more than 20,000 customers in eastern Massachusetts without electricity, the bulk on Cape Cod which was feeling the brunt of strong winds.

Most of Indiana had been under winter weather advisory with officials urging motorists to stay put unless they absolutely had to travel. Northern Indiana had been expecting up to 5 inches (13 centimeters) with slightly less in the southern part of the state.

New England was expected to get up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) of snow. Strong winds were predicted for Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island with gusts up to 65 mph (105 kph).

Mountain areas in parts of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming received more than 1 foot (30 centimeters) of snow, which started Saturday. It was good news for holiday skiers and resorts which have struggled with a slow start this season.

But it meant a heightened warning of avalanches in higher elevations outside of ski areas.