STERLING – It was cold, but sunny, as hundreds of all ages gathered at noon Sunday to show their support for 29-year-old Jessica Strader, who was losing her hard-fought battle with breast cancer.
They said a prayer for the young mother of two, and sang "Amazing Grace." Then they stepped into the field behind the Strader house to release the pink balloons most were holding. The Straders' 2-year-old daughter, Khloe, was the first to release hers. The crowd followed.
That was the moment, husband Jared Strader said, that Jess "took her last breath."
His father-in-law had summoned him inside. The nurse wanted him, he said. As he got the news, the crowd was leaving, unaware of what had happened.
Jess, a 2001 Prophetstown High School graduate, taught special education at Jefferson Elementary School in Sterling until it became too much to handle. She had fought the aggressive breast cancer since February 2010. By October 2011, it had spread to her brain.
“Jared’s my rock, and my kids are my strength,” Jess told Sauk Valley Media in an interview days after learning the cancer had metastasized.
Sunday, with temperatures in the 20s, hundreds gathered at noon in the parking lot behind Challand Middle School. A helicopter circled overhead. A group of people held signs spelling out, "We Love U Jess."
The Rev. Scott Porter of Abiding Word Church related a few words from Jared: The family was taking things day by day. Jess wanted to get back to the "noble" job of teaching.
Shortly after noon, Porter asked the crowd to head across the fields behind Challand to the Straders' one-story white house, the back yard of which faces the school.
They stopped at the chainlink fence dividing the back yard from the school fields. Cups inserted into the fence spelled out, "Thank you." Two TV camerawomen filmed the procession from inside the back yard.
Porter led a prayer, speaking of Jess' "valiant" fight. "Cancer cannot cripple love or corrode faith," the pastor said.
With the help of a microphone, Anne Whalen, 32, who lives across the street from the Straders, sang "Amazing Grace." The crowd joined in. Many had tears running down their faces.
About a dozen of Straders' relatives and friends stood in a group to Whalen's left. They wore "Team Jess" sweatshirts. Jared, who was wearing a pink bandana, comforted Khloe, who was born 2 weeks before her mother began chemotherapy. The little girl cried at one point.
Then Porter asked the crowd to move to the center of the field to form a symbol resembling a breast cancer ribbon.
That's where the helicopter came in. On command, everyone released their balloons. A photographer from above snapped pictures of the ribbon formation.
"I want to thank everyone for their support and the love they have given our family over the years," Jared said when contacted by phone after his wife's death. "We were amazed by the support. No words can express what the community did for us.
"She inspired a lot of people."
In addition to Khloe and Jared, 33, the Tampico native leaves behind her 9-year-old son, Dominique.
Funeral arrangements are pending with McDonald Funeral Home.