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Students, alumni help fuel growing #MCStrong movement

Kali Riddell and Kelsie Kuhlmann

Illinois State students Kali Riddell, left, and Kelsie Kuhlmann during their cookie giveaway Monday.

From passing out free cookies on the Quad to giving away children’s books in Uptown Normal, Illinois State students and alumni are helping turn one Redbird’s tragic death into a pay-it-forward movement.

Senior exercise science major Michael Collins died April 2 following a car crash that also injured three others. The woman who allegedly caused the crash faces drunken driving charges.

Rallying around the #MCStrong hashtag, those who knew Collins—and many who never met him—are honoring his memory through a viral series of charitable acts. Many of those acts of kindness have been shared on a Facebook page called Pay It Forward for Michael Collins, which has nearly 18,000 participants.

New #MCStrong stories pop up throughout the day on the page, which was created by Illinois State student and Collins friend Hailey Lanier. She told The Pantagraph that Collins himself was the first to pay it forward, as an organ donor.

“In a time of loss, everyone feels helpless, as if there is nothing they can do to help. This is a way to help people grieve by giving them something positive to focus their energy on,” Lanier told The Pantagraph.

Michael Collins headshot

Illinois State student Michael Collins died April 2 following a car crash.

Collins, a baseball player and coach, grew up in Bloomington-Normal, but #MCStrong has spread across the country quickly. The movement began in and around Illinois State, bolstered by Collins’ friends.

On Monday, students Kali Riddell and Kelsie Kuhlmann set up in a tent on the Quad and gave away around 2,000 free cookies for five chilly hours. The speech pathology majors both know the Collins family and were moved to do something to honor their friend after his funeral last week.

Looking to educate students about the dangers of drunken driving, they put the donated cookies inside individual plastic baggies with a sticker that told Collins’ story and promoted #MCStrong.

“We wanted MC’s name to live on, because he was such a great guy, a great student, a great athlete, a great friend. He was a big part of this community. Everybody’s kind of honoring that,” said Kuhlmann, a junior who played softball at Heartland Community College in Normal when Collins played baseball there.

The #MCStrong acts of kindness are popping up everywhere. Illinois State alumna Jen Carley ’03 was at Eastland Mall in Bloomington with her two youngest sons last week when a stranger approached her and explained what happened to Collins and the pay-it-forward movement he sparked. The stranger paid for Carley’s sons to make their own stuffed animals in a nearby store—a gesture that touched Carley deeply.

Jen Carley's book donation

Here’s how Jen Carley paid it forward.

Looking for some way to pay it forward herself, Carley decided to buy around 40 children’s books about baseball and donate them to kids through the Children’s Discovery Museum in Uptown Normal.

“It just brings you to tears, how someone did it for us,” said Carley, an elementary education grad from Gibson City. “It feels really good to be part of this, and it feels even better to show my kids this, to teach them this lesson.”

Junior exercise science major Nicole Matthew was at Pub II in Uptown Normal last Sunday, having a meal with her 2-year-old son and boyfriend after an ISU club softball alumni game. Out of nowhere, her waitress told her that an anonymous man had paid for their meal, asking only that they pay it forward too.

Money is tight right now, Matthew said, so the free meal meant a great deal to her. And Matthew lost her own father in a drunken driving crash, making the moment even more meaningful.

“For it to happen in my community, and for people to rise above it like this and pay it forward in (Collins’) memory, it just really hits close to home,” said Matthew, who never met Collins.

Stories like these—big and small, from all over—are the perfect way to honor Collins, said Kuhlmann.

“I have so many friends that have gone and even just paid people’s meters that have run out (at ISU),” Riddell said. “It’s amazing the little things that can really make somebody’s day better.

“To know that it’s in Michael’s name is really special,” she said.

Ryan Denham can be reached at