Like a lot of us, when Miriam Aarons encountered a news story on Facebook about the killing of an elderly couple and the sexual assault of their great-granddaughter two weekends ago, she got a sick feeling in her stomach.
"It's one of those things that when you come across you know, it kind of makes you want to just tune out of the world, like live in your own bubble," she said.
"My initial thought was I should just get, like, totally off of Facebook and stop reading the news."
It was a Sunday. Aarons, 31, lives in South Anchorage and works in corporate communications for Bering Straits Native Corp. (She's half Inupiat, originally from Dillingham.) She is also pregnant with twins, due in two months. Her family gave her a baby shower that day. It made her feel surrounded with love, she said. But what she'd read still gnawed at her.
"I saw some parallels between me and family. Like the mom is pregnant. I found that out. She has two toddlers, a 2-year-old and 4-year old, and I have 3-year-old son," she said.
The next day, Memorial Day, she asked her husband if he thought it would be crazy for her to organize an event to raise money for the family. She's an introvert by nature, and she'd never done anything like that before. She had no idea how to even find the family.
"He said 'Yeah, I think it might be crazy. You're really pregnant,' " she said.
A friend suggested she get in touch with Mao Tosi, a Mountain View community organizer who also manages the Northway Mall. She messaged him on Facebook.
Tosi was fresh from a graduation barbecue where everyone was talking about the murders and the assault. Tosi, a father of five, couldn't get the little girl out of his head, he said. He wrote Aarons back right away: "Let's do it."
Tosi suggested they do the event in two days at the Northway Mall. Aarons set up a page on Facebook, and blasted it out on her social networks. Within hours, hundreds of people were following. She asked a friend to help set up a way to give donations online.
"From there, it just kind of blew up," she said.
Reporters started calling. It turned out that lots of people felt like Aarons. They just wanted to do something. Money started pouring in online from all over the place. The donors were doctors, church people, radio personalities, laborers, corporate executives and tattoo artists. The Sunrise Grill and Pancake House gave $500. So did The Great Alaskan Bush Company.
At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Tosi opened up a community car wash in the Northway Mall parking lot. With a sign on the corner and a couple of Facebook posts, cars started streaming in. Volunteer car washers, most of the young people from the neighborhood, lined up too. But they couldn't keep up. The car wash alone generated around $7,000, Aarons said.
The event began and the parking lot filled with people. There was music and dancing. They tried to keep count but lost track somewhere close to 500.
"I would say it was just a cross-section of, you know, Anchorage," she said. "... I saw everyone from Alaska Native people to Pacific Islanders to Asian people. The mayor came."
The turnout was more than she imagined and one of the best Tosi had ever seen. People Tosi knew from Mountain View who had very little put something in the cash box, he said.
Hank Moth, an organizer in the Cambodian community, introduced Aarons to Von and Lisa Seng, the parents of the 2-year-old, at the Northway Mall event. She hadn't planned on meeting them. With everything they had gone through, she didn't want to impose. When she saw them, emotion washed over her.
"They were just really kind and they said they were really grateful," she said.
"I could see stress etched on their faces and heartache too."
When the event was over, Aarons and Tosi had raised $23,000. Aarons texted the total to Von that night. He texted back, "OMG."
Another almost $2,000 has come in since then, including money from a collection taken up among prisoners at Anchorage jail.
The money went mainly to cover the funeral expenses, Von Seng told me on Tuesday. Some of it will also go to taxes.
"It felt heartwarming to see people, you know, showed up to support me, my family and my daughter," he said.
The Cambodian community gathered at Wat Lao, the Lao Buddhist temple in Mountain View, to honor his grandparents, Touch Chea and Sorn Sreap, on Saturday. On Sunday they were cremated. His daughter, he said, is recovering.
"She's playing," he said. "She is running around."
But the pain for his family has not stopped. Von answered my phone call from Providence Alaska Medical Center, where he was sitting vigil at the bedside of his great-grandmother, Sreap Yan, who is in her 90s. She suffers from dementia, but she witnessed the violence at the house. She has been agitated and having nightmares since the event. Then she had a major stroke. Doctors told the family that she is not expected to recover, Von said.
"I believe that she was traumatized," he said.
The community support comforted them, Von said, but he still can't make sense of how he and his family found themselves in middle of this nightmare caused by a stranger who happened to pick their open window to crawl into. How could terrible things happen so randomly to four people he loved all at once? It was so much heartache.
"Just from one person, you know?" he said.
A companion radio story to this column was produced through a collaboration with Alaska Public Radio Network. Listen here.
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Call her at 257-4591, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, find her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter: @adn_jomalley.