BLOOMINGTON — Hailey Lanier met Michael Collins in junior high school and the two became good friends at Normal West High School. As seniors at Illinois State University, they became even closer.
"He was one of my best friends, and was truly an amazing person to be around," she said.
Collins died April 2, the result of injuries suffered in a car accident that authorities say was caused by a Bloomington woman, who remains in jail on multiple charges of aggravated DUI.
Immediately after his death, friends began a movement of "paying it forward" in his honor. Lanier created a Facebook page dedicated to the idea of repaying a good deed to others instead of the original benefactor.
"I thought it would apply well to this situation, especially since Michael was able to pay it forward by being an organ donor," she said. "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."
As of Friday afternoon, more than 13,000 people were guests of the page. Messages also were posted on Twitter at #MCStrong. When someone pays it forward, they are encouraged — sometimes through a third party such as a cashier, waiter or through a note — to let the recipient know the act was done in Michael's name.
The Pantagraph has received dozens of examples of people acting on the idea.
"I honestly never expected it to get this big," said Lanier. "It makes me feel good to see Michael's story and legacy spreading. He loved being the center of attention and I know he would be so thrilled to see people doing kind acts in his name. Reading all of the posts and seeing how this has affected people and really caused them to rethink how they are living their lives is amazing. I never could have expected it would have the effect that it did."
Among those paying it forward was Jim Collins, Michael's father.
"I went through a drive-thru and was thinking about the good this effort was doing and how it had made people smile," he said. "I thought, 'I want to try this, too,' and so I paid for the guy behind me. He just had a huge smile and waved. It was a pretty cool thing."
Visitors to the Facebook page often report their random acts of kindness or thank those who participated.
Michelle Whitehead wrote about purchasing a bouquet of flowers at Walmart as a pay-it-forward gift for the next person leaving the store.
"It happened to be a woman in a wheelchair that looked like she could use a little cheering up," she wrote. "I hope it helped. I immediately teared up. I had no idea the impact it would have on me since I didn't even know him."
Three hours later, a woman posted an update on the site, with a picture of the flowers and the text her mother had written.
"I was just getting in my car at Walmart and this girl came up to me and gave me this bouquet of flowers as a pay it forward for that boy that got killed...... I'm sitting out here crying."
Carla Haddock paid it forward while at Walgreen's.
"I was at the drive-thru and there was a young woman inside. She was on the phone, in tears, very red-faced and it was clear she didn't have the money for her prescriptions. They called for a manager. After I paid for my order, I asked the employee to take my card and pay for her in honor of Michael Collins. The young woman cried, smiled and waved. Michael Collins is an inspiration and the outpouring of kindness and generosity, I will carry with me for a lifetime."
Jim Collins said he and other family members have heard from several people about the movement.
"It's extremely touching, almost overwhelming to see the response," he said. "Michael always had a smile on his face and this is putting smiles on people's faces. Michael always wanted others to treat people like they would want to be treated and Michael would say that this is the way the world should work. Our family is very humbled and honored by this. And I know Michael is watching and getting a big kick out of this."