DES MOINES, Iowa – What represents a day of love for most is one of heartbreak for Jennifer Bertagnolli.
“I was 17 years old. He was murdered because of his sexuality, he was a gay man,” said Jennifer, of her father, Ken Eaton. “And he was killed for that. And I woke up the next morning and I found him, and that was February 13th of 1988.”
28 years have passed, but the pain Jennifer carries has remained. Rather than sit in her own sorrow, Bertagnolli decided to start a tradition six years ago that would spread love and comfort to other hurting hearts in the Metro. Valentines for Victims teams up with students at St. Anthony’s Catholic School to decorate and fill “Boxes of Blessings” – gift boxes filled with just about anything that people can donate to provide some sort of comfort to families who have lost a loved one to violent crime.
“This is a big time for her, because of her loss at this time around Valentines Day,” said Paul Walker, who lost his son to a homicide in Des Moines. “But she has managed to take that and turn it into something, a different type of way of looking at Valentines Day.”
For Walker, who attended a Friday morning Mass at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, where the boxes were given out, it’s a bittersweet experience.
“To come here and see the boxes overflowing, and everything, it helps because in a sense because you know there’s someone out there who’s with you,” he said. “But it’s bittersweet, it’s very sad – you don’t want to see all these boxes, because all these boxes mean…for each box, that means there’s a loss of life to violence.”
This year, 23 homicides were recognized at the ceremony, and 12 families of lost loved ones showed up to receive their Valentine’s boxes.
“I know that walk, and I know that pain,” Bertagnolli said. “And if they can have a helping hand, I’ve had many angels come alongside me on my journey. And if wasn’t for them I don’t know where I’d be today. It’s just a little hand.”