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Editorial: Project 7 is a gift that keeps on giving

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It's been two years since Central Illinois lost the seven men for whom Project 7 is named. Two years of pain and grief. Two years of hope that the next day will be brighter. Two years of memories.

Scott Bittner, 42, Towanda; Andy Butler, 40, Normal; Tom Hileman, 51, Bloomington; Jason Jones, 45, Bloomington; Aaron Leetch, 37, Normal; Terry Stralow, 64, Bloomington; and Torrey Ward, 36, Normal, died April 7, 2015, when their plane crashed near the Twin City airport as they returned from the NCAA men's basketball championship game in Indianapolis. 

They were sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, friends to each other and to us.

Last year, the men's families started a campaign to honor their legacies in a way that can benefit all of us. Project 7 — representing the seven men who died on the seventh day of April — asked that everyone perform seven acts of kindness. 

Today, the campaign returns and the families are again encouraging the community to spread the kindness.

“We looked at it and we had two choices,” Lindsay Leetch told Sports Editor Randy Kindred in 2016. “We can either dwell on the bad situation, or we can make the most of it. These guys had their own unique traits, but one common thing they all carried was their kindness.

“They were great friends, great colleagues, great human beings," she told Kindred. "Nobody can bring our guys back. But this is something you can do. It’s what they would want … move forward, press on and let’s make something good of it.”

The first year for Project 7 prompted a flurry of "pay it forward" acts of kindness. On the group's Facebook page, one woman noted that her projects included helping friends with cancer or in hospice, paying for other peoples' orders at a drive-thru, donating socks to those in need, donating money to a charity, and simply returning a trash can to a neighbor's driveway on a windy day.

Another woman noted that she smiled at everyone she came across, and made sure to say "thank you" throughout her day.

Kindnesses can be that simple or be more involved, like a group getting together to paint a house. All of us are familiar with what constitutes "kindness"; the key is to do it every day.

But Project 7 goes a step beyond, asking for seven acts of kindness to remember seven special people.

The members of our communities do good works every day. We raise money for events or equipment, volunteer to read to a child, drive a senior to a doctor's appointment, perform CPR after an accident, mentor kids who need an adult in their lives.

There are numerous ways to make a difference in this world and the great majority are done simply with a kind word or a good deed.

The lesson of Project 7 is to make a difference every day, just like the men who lost their lives on that terrible day two years ago.

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