When Jaron Cohen left the Liberty football program for Hinkley in Aurora not quite one year ago, he left behind a strong community of friends following a five-year stay at the Academy District 20 school.
In the last month, Cohen realized how much that community still means to him.
Faced with adversity far beyond the football field, several Hinkley families recently benefited from the unseen support of Cohen's buddies at Liberty, just in time before utility companies cut off power and landlords came in with new padlocks.
"Thanks to Liberty High School and their generosity," Hinkley athletic director Tristen Rogers said. "They hold a special place in Hinkley's hearts for sure."
Cohen, who in 2013 led the Thunderbirds to a 5-5 record, the program's most victories in a single season in more than a decade, encountered quite the foe when a pair of student-athletes approached him, frantically, when things were falling apart at home.
"They couldn't afford to take the ACT test," Cohen said. "My athletic director and I gave them the money to sign up. All they wanted to do was take the ACT again, and they're great kids. They had never asked for anything. Then I realized that wasn't all."
Cohen then sent an e-mail to CJ Christofferson, co-president of the Pigskin Parents, a fundraising organization built to support the Lancers' program.
When Christofferson saw Cohen's plea, she forwarded the email to the rest of her list. Suddenly, it wasn't about what Liberty wanted to do for itself.
By the first week in December, Cohen had received more than $1,000 in gift cards and, more importantly, families in rough Aurora neighborhoods enjoyed a warm Christmas in their own houses.
"When Jaron asked for help, many of the parents here stepped up, regardless of level," said Christofferson, who teaches marketing at Liberty. "It's a football community. We all jump in. The guys loved Jaron when he was here. He was a mentor to them."
Cohen, although not surprised, still was taken aback by the flood of support.
"It was unbelievable," Cohen said. "I gave what I had to the kids before (winter) break, and their parents called me back, crying, saying they couldn't believe it. Knowing the parents I worked with at Liberty, I wasn't surprised. I had kids who had graduated four or five years ago sending money and gift cards."
According to Rogers, between 85 to 90 percent of Hinkley's student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch.
"We're in the heart of Aurora, very much low socioeconomically," Rogers said. "I like to call us beautifully diverse; we have a full range of cultures. We do whatever we can, but come holiday time, it's always a struggle. You never know what's coming."
So imagine her surprise when Cohen's circle of friends helped people they didn't know.
"I was speechless," Rogers said. "When Jaron told us that Liberty was sponsoring families, they were so quick and generous. The kids are so humble, but they are grateful and appreciative. This definitely has made an impact on all of us."