How do you turn the response to an inexplicable act of violence into a cause based on decency, compassion and caring?
How do you channel crushing grief into affirmative acts of kindness?
How do you move forward without forgetting?
Jeanne and Gideon Bernstein have offered us answers to these difficult questions. They have harnessed their pain and used it to create what has now become a nationwide movement dedicated to choosing love and kindness over hate and resentment.
Their tragic story is well known. The Orange County couple’s son, Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old student at the University of Pennsylvania, was reported missing on Jan. 3, 2018. His body was discovered six days later at Borrego Park in Lake Forest. He had been stabbed multiple times and buried in a shallow grave.
Samuel Woodward, a 21-year-old former classmate of Bernstein’s at the Orange County School of the Arts, has been charged in the slaying, which prosecutors allege was a hate crime. Bernstein was gay, and Woodward, a Newport Beach resident, is believed to be both anti-gay and affiliated with a neo-Nazi organization.
But Jeanne and Gideon Bernstein have made the deliberate choice not to dwell on the sordid details of the case and not to succumb to bitterness or vengeance. The justice system will do its work, they believe. Their energies have instead been directed toward honoring their son and inspiring others to use his memory as an impetus to do good deeds.
The Blaze It Forward campaign, as they call it, continues to grow, and now has participants from around the country and even in other parts of the world. The group’s Facebook page has more than 22,000 followers.
On Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day and exactly one year after the memorial service for Blaze — I met the Bernsteins at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Irvine, where they had organized a volunteer event to package produce for distribution to shelters, churches, food pantries and other groups that combat hunger throughout the county.
“My son’s funeral was on the MLK holiday,” Jeanne said. “After that, we decided to commemorate the day with acts of service.
“Blaze was a really special human being. His story resonates with people. (The volunteers) are also making an announcement that they’re saying no to intolerance, and they’re making a positive change.”
Indeed. About 150 people — the maximum number that the Second Harvest facility could accommodate for the Monday event — turned out to help bag, box and load for distribution donated farm apples.
The warehouse buzzed with energy and camaraderie. Some volunteers measured and cut the netting, then knotted the ends to form them into bags. Others stuffed the bags with apples, while some boxed up the bags, keeping careful counts as they worked.
They were young and old, parents and children, friends and neighbors. Many wore “BlazeItForward” T-shirts.
“There’s something about Blaze’s death that connects people,” said David Thalberg, a close friend of the Bernsteins and a career publicist who donates his time to act as their media liaison.
“People kept asking, ‘What can we do?’ The answer is, ‘Do something good.’ ”
Among those heeding the call were a trio of 12-year-olds who attend Blaze’s former high school.
Nearby, Michael Stoll, another longtime friend of the Bernstein family, helped ready the bags.
“The small things we’re doing today have a huge impact on the community,” he said.
Posts to the “BlazeItForward” Facebook page show a similar charitable spirit, inspired by the Bernsteins’ call to service, in many other locales: Volunteers at the Long Beach AIDS Food Store; kids making sandwiches to feed the homeless in Philadelphia; individuals reporting random acts of kindness, such as buying coffee for a stranger; people donating blood; and distributing gift cards to public workers to thank them for clearing the roads after a storm in upstate New York.
I’d venture a guess that most of the people sharing their stories of giving never met Blaze, a young man described by his loved ones as a warm and thoughtful soul, avid cook, accomplished writer and adventurous travel companion.
But they have been touched by him. He is gone but his legacy endures.
In heartfelt remarks thanking the big group of volunteers at Second Harvest on Monday, the Bernsteins acknowledged how difficult the past year has been for their family. But they kept the focus positive.
“Now our journey with you is to do good,” Gideon Bernstein said. “Hate and help are both four-letter words. You can sit in your house and you can hate. Or you can go out and help somebody else, and you’ll learn to not hate and maybe to love.”
This is what humanity should always look like.