Family photos inside Jean Paris’ house tell the story of a close-knit family of four: A family that laughed together, enjoyed Nerf gun wars and found happiness by spending time together.
But on Aug. 1, 2012, Jean’s husband of 18 years suffered a heart attack and died in her arms at their LaGrange home.
Ohio Highway Patrol Trooper Mike Paris Sr. was 52 when he died. His 54th birthday would have been Saturday. He had been a trooper for 21 years.
“I just held his hand and told him ‘I love you,’ and gave him a kiss,” she said in August 2012. “He was a good guy. Being the warrior that he was, he told me not to worry and relax.”
After Paris’ life was turned upside down, Lorain County Blue stepped in to help ease the financial burden that came with her husband’s death.
The Lorain County Blue Foundation was created by Avon K-9 police Officer Chris Barton to provide support for families when officers are lost or are critically injured. The foundation was formed after Avon police Officer Pete Soto was injured in an on-duty motorcycle accident in 2010, Barton said.
“I created Lorain County Blue with the help of members of the Avon Friends of Police. The goal of Lorain County Blue was to have an organization and some money set aside for the next — God forbid — critical incident or officer down,” Barton said.
Paris said it was through the foundation’s financial and emotional support that she was able to cope in the aftermath of her husband’s death.
“I was in such a cloud after Mike’s death, I just sort of existed while my whole life crashed down,” Paris said. “I had no idea they existed, and they opened their hearts to us at the worst time in my life.”
Since Mike’s death, the brotherhood of law enforcement officers is what has helped Jean Paris and her children, Mike Paris Jr., 17, and Halle Paris, 14, to get through their darkest hour.
Without the constant support of the brotherhood, Paris isn’t sure where she would be today — emotionally or mentally.
“Chris (Barton) was there for my family to make sure we were OK,” Paris said. “The loss of Mike has been devastating, but we still have to live and we have his memory to carry us through.”
Lorain County Blue has assisted three families since its inception, Barton said. Most recently, the organization participated in a fundraiser for Lorain County Sheriff corrections officer Tom Pruitt. Pruitt was diagnosed with stage-four cancer.
“We hosted the first chili cook-off as a benefit for Officer Soto and his family. The event was a huge success, raising over $15,000 for the family,” Barton said.
During the initial fundraiser, Barton realized that a majority of the agencies that donated to Soto’s benefit were the Avon Friends of Police, Avon Lake Friends of Police, Cleveland Police Department and Lorain Police Department.
“I realized there was no organization to help officers or agencies during critical incidents in Lorain County,” Barton said.
Yet it’s not just the financial support that families need during difficult times.
“As time passes on, remembering the family is also important, sometimes the most important,” Barton said.
Barton, who recently had lunch with Soto, said his friend is a humble man who is thankful to be alive.
“He is excited to be able to spend time with his family, but misses the job,” Barton said. “He wasn’t ready to retire, but circumstances forced him to go. If you ask the officers he worked with, Pete was respected by all and missed dearly.”
Coping with the passing of her husband, Paris said she misses talking to her best friend at the dinner table.
“I can never have another conversation with him,” she said quietly.
But Paris also knows that her late husband would not want her to stop living.
This year, Paris has taken the initiative to help spread the word about the fourth annual “Pete Soto Chili Cook-off.”
“The chili cook-off is a huge success because of the volunteers that make it possible and the agencies that donate their time for a great cause,” Barton said.
The chili cook-off will be 5 to 10 p.m. Feb. 8 at Lorain County Community College Spitzer Hall and Culinary Arts Center.
This year will bring 18 to 20 cookers competing for the best chili recipe in Lorain County.
Tickets are a $15 donation and are available online, at police agencies throughout the county, and at the Avon Police Department. Ticket price includes chili, pop/beer and dessert.
“Mike was such a motivator, and he would expect nothing less than for us to do this for him,” Paris said of lending a helping hand during the upcoming benefit.