After tucking in his 3-year-old son, Hewitt, on Christmas Eve 2010, Don Liimatainen paused half-way down the stairs and gazed at the empty space under the Christmas tree in his living room. The Esko, Minnesota, single dad had been having health issues and had been unable to hold down a full-time job — and this year, he feared there would be no money for gifts.
Don’s chest felt hollow. This is the worst Christmas ever, he thought, tears welling in his eyes. Just then, the doorbell rang. “Merry Christmas!” Don’s mom, stepfather, and grandmother exclaimed, their arms laden with presents. Hewitt would have a merry Christmas after all, and what’s more, the empty place in Don’s chest was now ablaze with a fire of hope. This turned out to be the BEST Christmas ever, Don smiled as he watched Hewitt excitedly open gifts the next morning. Next year, I’ll be on the giving end, Don vowed.
Making Dreams Come True
As the new year unfolded, Don’s health improved, and he was able to go back to work. But his desire to pay the love forward never wavered. When Christmas 2011 neared, he told his best friend, Jason Kunz, “I’m going to give another struggling dad the best Christmas ever.” “Whatever you need, I’ll help,” Jason told Don.
The two raised $700 from friends and family. Then, with the help of a local radio station, they found another dad who was having health and money problems, and a few days before Christmas, Don and Jason surprised the family with a lavish turkey dinner and armfuls of toys and gifts for their children. “How can I ever thank you?” the dad choked as his children squealed with excitement. Don’s heart swelled with so much joy that he decided then and there, I want to do this for even more families.
Jason shared his enthusiasm, and together they founded “Best Christmas Ever” (BCEMovement.org). As word of their mission spread, more and more people signed on to help. Don organized volunteers into groups with captains and created a process so people could nominate families in need in their communities for a Best Christmas Ever (BCE) of their own.
He held fundraisers so they could offer even more help, and along with clothes and toys, they also started giving families necessities like new furnaces and roofs. Others were even helped out from under a mountain of medical debt. This is better than I ever imagined, Don thought.
Amy Basaraba shared Don’s feeling. She and her husband, Troy, had just bought a house when Troy suffered a fatal heart attack. Somehow, Amy and her 7-year-old twins, Landon and Lauren, made it through the next several months, but as Christmas approached, a heavy sadness fell over the household.
Then, a few days before the holiday, a dozen carloads of friends and well-wishers, laden heavy with gifts, showed up on her doorstep, led by her friend, Jolene Lust. “But there are so many other people more needy than we are,” Amy said. “You deserve a Best Christmas Ever just as much as anyone,” Jolene insisted, and soon, the twins were oohing over their new telescope, while Amy pictured the new kitchen floor she’d get with her $1,000 gift card. For Amy, even more than the gifts, it was the love and support that meant the most, and months later when she decided to move back to her hometown of International Falls, Minnesota, she started a BCE chapter there.
Her twins loved helping her shop and wrap gifts for an older couple who had first fostered and then adopted four siblings. “Christmas is an exciting time for my children again,” Amy says. “A mom couldn’t ask for a greater gift than that!”And many volunteers enlist their own children to help with the cause.
Michelle Weinmann says it’s been eye-opening for her two children, Isabella and Bentley. “They had never experienced shopping for things to give away, and the joy it can bring to so many hearts.” With chapters in eight states and several other countries, this year, Best Christmas Ever will be delivering joy and security to more than 250 families, spending up to $10,000 on each.
“I believe I was called by God,” says Don. “That feeling of hopelessness and fear that turned into joy — He planted that seed, then gave me the chance to watch it grow.”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Kindfulness (Buy on Amazon, $22).