Best Christmas Ever surprises local families
The morning after a crew of residents surprised the Fowler family of Sturgeon Lake by carrying gifts and a wish to make them feel held during hard times, Stephanie Fowler woke up feeling rested for the first time since October.
She didn't have to wake up and stress about how her family of five was going to afford rent, heat, diapers or putting food on the table as her husband, Zach Fowler, tries to recover from an illness that doesn't allow him to work.
Best Christmas Ever (BCE), a nonprofit that partners with local businesses to help provide families who have fallen on hard times a better Christmas, partnered with Cloquet Ford Chrysler for the second year to surprise two families this holiday season.
Al Birman, owner of Cloquet Ford Chrysler, has participated in BCE events since 2014, but only started organizing teams last year.
In his experience helping surprise families who might not otherwise have a Christmas, he's noticed that it's not the presents wrapped in holiday-themed paper that matter so much as the people holding them.
"They're crying because people care, because they're lonely or they're physically hurt or broke or depressed. And then 20 people walk through your front door and they're carrying gifts, that's nice, but it's not about presents," Birman said. "It's about a presence."
Zach's mother, Julie Hall of Cloquet, who helped Birman plan the surprise, agrees. So does her 7-year-old grandaughter, Abby.
"It's not about the toys. They're fun — don't get me wrong," Hall said as she turned to her granddaughter. A little squirmy in her chair, Abby paused, looked at her grandmother, nodded and whispered an empathetic "yeah."
"I'm thankful for everything that they did for us," Abby Fowler said.
"Anybody can go out and buy a train or a construction toy and we would have still been very appreciative for that, just to have that for the kids," Hall said. "But the fact that my children really slept that night for the first time since October, it's amazing."
Since October, Zach hasn't been well enough to work at Brent's Heating and Cooling in Carlton. He provided the family's main source of income before he got sick.
The illness started with a numbness in his foot he didn't think anything of, then that numbness started travelling and the entire right side of his body became paralyzed Oct. 18.
He was misdiagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome before doctors diagnosed him with sensory ganglionopathy, a rare disease of the peripheral nervous system. Doctors are struggling to find a treatment that works for him.
Now, he's on a three- to sixth-month waiting list at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. In the meantime, they wait. And this does not come naturally to Zach.
He developed a strong work ethic and a big heart for compassion at a young age, Hall said. Since age 13, he's never been without a job. He was 6 when Hall, a single mother, had her second child. Zach's younger sister spent the first five years of her life in and out of the hospital.
"Zach had to grow up really fast," Hall said. "I was single, trying to raise two kids. There was nobody else to carry out garbage or mow the lawn. He's always been that way; he's very protective. I think that's what made him such a good dad — he started caring and nurturing so young."
Zach was not well enough to join the interview Thursday, Dec. 20, but Stephanie said the BCE surprise opened his eyes to show him how much people truly care.
He can't wait to volunteer with BCE next year, and she said he can't stop talking about it.
To help further support the Fowler family, visit gofundme.com/zachery-fowler.
Two days after the Fowler family's surprise Christmas, Tonia Meyers-Jakubek underwent her first day of chemotherapy, completely unaware her day would soon take a much different turn.
Meyers-Jakubek, a mother of four and preschool teacher at Lil' Lumberjacks Learning Center in Cloquet, received a breast cancer diagnosis in early November. Soon after, she sent a letter to her students' parents to notify them she wouldn't be able to teach during treatment.
Karen Meilke has a daughter in Ms. Tonia's class and was one of three who nominated Meyers-Jakubek's family for Best Christmas Ever.
Meilke's family was a recipient of BCE in 2016 after she, too, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"My daughter loves Ms. Tonia so much that she often pretends to be her at home," Meilke said as she read her nomination letter at Meyers-Jakubek's packed home. "And she also whines when she doesn't get to go to school because it's the weekend."
From the window of her home just outside Cloquet, Meyer-Jakubek watched as a seemingly endless line of warm-glowing headlights started turning down her long driveway. She stepped outside to a growing crowd of friends, co-workers and family members.
There's not an adequate word to describe what it felt like to see so many people gathered there in support of her family, Meyers-Jakubek said; the word doesn't exist. A line of people formed outside the door and slowly made their way through the door to hug her, one by one.
"It was the most overwhelming feeling of love. Other than the birth of my babies, I've never experienced that before," she said. "When everybody was in there, the room seemed full of love."