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Single mother battling cancer is blessed with gifts at her Brainerd home

Family receives money and gifts from strangers through Best Christmas Ever program

BCE Cassie Stenson with kids.JPG
Cassie Stenson and her children - Luka Lundbohm, 2, and Ruby Carlson, 14 - sit amongst the gifts piled under their Christmas tree thanks to the Best Christmas Ever program Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal
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BRAINERD — Cassie Stenson watched in awe as more than a dozen strangers — their arms filled with festively wrapped gifts — squeezed into the living room of her Brainerd home Wednesday night, Dec. 21.

Oh, my gosh, this is all so much. This seriously is the best Christmas ever.
Cassie Stenson

“I couldn’t believe when I opened the door and saw all the people lining the driveway,” she said.

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Kathy Stenson holds her daughter, Cassie, while they are told about all the Christmas help Cassie and her two children received through the Best Christmas Ever program Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, at Cassie's Brainerd home.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

“Shocked,” “overwhelmed,” “blessed” and “thankful” are the words Stenson shared after everyone left about a half hour later. She was still processing being chosen as the recipient of the Best Christmas Ever program.

“Oh, my gosh, this is all so much,” a tearful Stenson said. “This seriously is the best Christmas ever.”

The Best Christmas Ever program helps families who have fallen upon tough times through no fault of their own. Sponsor Woods to Water Real Estate in Nisswa took applications for eligible families in the lakes area, ultimately choosing Stenson.

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Stenson’s friends, Nicole Mason and Monica Schrader — a friend from elementary school — nominated Stenson and her two children, Ruby Carlson, who just turned 14 on Dec. 28, and Luka Lundbohm, 2.

Cassie has a long road of recovery and will not be working for months and has bills to pay and Christmas coming around the corner.
Nicole Mason in nomination letter

A single mom, Stenson, 33, was diagnosed Aug. 2 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma — breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy Sept. 7, and got a power port placed to start chemotherapy Sept. 27.

On Oct. 11, she started her first of four rounds of biweekly chemotherapy, followed by four rounds of biweekly Taxol chemotherapy. She faces six more months of chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries.

“Cassie has a long road of recovery and will not be working for months and has bills to pay and Christmas coming around the corner,” the nomination letter said.

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Volunteers with Woods to Water Real Estate in Nisswa pose with Cassie Stenson and her family and friends after delivering gifts to Stenson's Brainerd home Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. From left in the front row are Kathy Stenson, Cassie's mom; Ruby Carlson, Cassie's daughter; Cassie; Luka Lundbohm, Cassie's son; and her friends, Nicole Mason and Monica Schrader, who nominated Stenson for the Best Christmas Ever program.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

Ruby, decked in a Santa hat, was perhaps the first to notice a familiar face in the group of strangers - her grandma and Stenson’s mother, Kathy Stenson, dressed in a Santa sweater. She surprised her daughter and grandchildren with a visit from Bayfield, Wisconsin, with plans to stay for a few days.

“I’m really surprised that my grandma is here and that my family is in on this without me knowing,” Ruby later said.

Stenson’s father and sister also were there, though not physically. Both Dan Stenson and Sam Stenson watched the goings-on via Facetime - the father from Alaska and the sister from California.

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Ruby Carlson opens her gift - a keyboard - from the Best Christmas Ever program Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, as her grandma, Kathy Stenson, Facetimes with her daughter, Sam Stenson, from California.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

The two kids and Stenson each opened one gift. Luka was enamored with a box of Hot Wheels cars, repeating, “open,” “open,” until his grandma helped him get to the cars.

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Ruby received a keyboard, and Stenson received a basket filled with gift cards to stores for home needs, a gas card, an outing to the spa at Grand View Lodge to get pampered and $500 toward new tires she had been talking to her dad about getting.

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Luka Lundbohm was excited to open his gift from the Best Christmas Ever program Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022 - Hot Wheels cars.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

“Things to help lighten the burden,” said Colton Maher, broker/owner of Woods to Water Real Estate.

Maher explained how the Brainerd lakes area community banded together with donations, telling Stenson to expect a check for around $10,000 to go toward bills and possibly a family trip when Stenson regains her health.

Schrader told her friend they’d lined up someone to plow her driveway all winter as well.

I'm really happy for my mom ... I love my mom.
Ruby Carlson

In all, about 160 people donated financially, and 60 gifts were donated.

“There’s a whole lot of people who came together,” Maher said.

Ironically, upon seeing Stenson’s address the day before delivery, Woods to Water employees realized they’d sold Stenson her home.

Read past Best Christmas Ever stories
Family deaths, serious car accident, cancer diagnosis affect Justin and Laura Gronholz family
Lisa Hanson said she had been watching the Best Christmas Ever efforts on Facebook without realizing they were raising donations for her.
Outpouring of community support was complete surprise.
“This summer we got a call saying the kids needed somewhere to go. We went from a couple of two and boomed into a family of seven overnight.” - Kendra Kozelka, age 24, rural Pine River
Community helps family facing medical struggles due to illness, grief due to the loss of loved ones, financial burdens.

Reflecting on the whirlwind evening, Ruby said: “I’m really happy for my mom. I feel really touched, I guess happy for my mom. I love my mom.”

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Her grandma said she was grateful for the community and how much they gave to her daughter and grandchildren.

“Unbelievable,” she said.

Nancy Vogt, editor, may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.

Nancy Vogt is editor of the Pineandlakes Echo Journal, a weekly newspaper that covers eight communities in the Pequot Lakes-Pine River areas - from Nisswa to Hackensack and Pequot Lakes to Crosslake.

She started as editor of the Lake Country Echo in July 2006, and continued in that role when the Lake Country Echo and the Pine River Journal combined in September 2013 to become the Pineandlakes Echo Journal. She worked for the Brainerd Dispatch from 1992-2006 in various roles.

She covers Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Lake Shore and Crosslake city councils, as well as writes feature stories, news stories and personal columns (Vogt's Notes). She also takes photos at community events.

Contact her at nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com or 218-855-5877 with story ideas or questions. Be sure to leave a voicemail message!
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