Thanks to both friends and strangers, a Pequot Lakes family just had the best Christmas ever.

Joni O’Donnell and Bill Regina were at their home with O’Donnell’s two children when their friend, Kristin Larsen, stopped by Thursday evening, Dec. 19. That wasn’t unusual. What is unusual is what followed.

A group of people showed up at the door and filed into the family’s small living room, arms overflowing with gifts to put under the Christmas tree and boxes of pizza. The family soon learned they were the recipients of the Best Christmas Ever, a nonprofit program that serves families who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own.

“I’m in shock,” O’Donnell said, as she, Regina and her children, Logan Carlson, 15, and Brynn Carlson, 10, took it all in.

Colton Maher, owner/broker of Woods to Water Real Estate in Nisswa, worked with the Best Christmas Ever program while with another real estate brokerage in Minneapolis. The nonprofit program strives to deliver a life-changing Christmas experience to a local family to show that even in the hardest of times, the family still has the community’s full support.

When friends shared a Facebook post about a fundraiser for the program, O’Donnell donated to it, never imagining her family would be the recipient. That’s part of the reason the Woods to Water Real Estate team chose her family for the Best Christmas Ever.

“She’s so positive through it all. They’re a happy, giving family. They don’t ask for anything from others,” Maher said.

Larsen wrote the nomination letter on behalf of O’Donnell’s church, Crosslake Lutheran. O’Donnell has been fighting stage 4 colon cancer since September 2016, the kids’ grandpa died at the end of January, and their father, Joel Carlson, died two weeks later.

“To be able to have gone through what they all have endured for the last three years, and especially the tragedies of 2019 and losing their father, is simply heartbreaking. No child should have to deal with what these kids have had to,” the nomination letter says.

“Joni turned 50 this year, and even after the bad news of the trials and the continuation of chemo, she said to me, ‘50 has never felt so good’ after a celebration with family and friends. If you didn't know Joni was dealing with cancer, you wouldn't ever know as she is always so positive and ends every note with, ‘Smiles … Joni,’” the letter says.

“Logan has had to mature well beyond his age this year. At 15 you want to just be a kid still, but some choices, commitments and sacrifices have turned Logan into a young adult far too soon,” the letter says, adding that Brynn is such a pleasant little girl with a good perspective, positive attitude, curious mind, free spirit and a huge heart.

Regina has been the family's rock, traveling with O’Donnell to appointments and helping in every way with the kids and events.

“My rock takes very good care of us,” O’Donnell agreed.

“It’s been a hard year for them, especially to go through all of that and what I’m facing,” she said of her children.

When O’Donnell said she’d never seen so many Christmas presents, Brynn said in an astonished voice, “I’ve never seen so many people in our living room!”

In addition to gifts the community purchased for the family after picking gift tags from the Best Christmas Ever Giving Tree at the Woods to Water office, the family received money that’s recommended to go toward medical bills. Additional incentives include attending two classes - one on finances and one on health and wellness - to receive another $1,000 per class.

The Best Christmas Ever program started in 2011 in Cloquet and now operates throughout the United States and Canada.