Katie and Mike Leslie were sitting around the table eating pizza from Casey’s with their kids, Katie’s mom, Cindy Brichacek, and her boyfriend, Wayne Finch, when the doorbell rang. They were greeted by more than a dozen people standing on the front stoop holding armfuls of brightly-wrapped packages and gifts.

“Mike and I were in shock (thinking) what’s going on, we had no clue,” Katie Leslie said.

Their friends, Nicki and Aaron Vogt, nominated the Leslies to be recipients of the Best Christmas Ever. The Best Christmas Ever program, based out of Cloquet, is serving 164 families across the United States, and even some in Canada this year. The goal of the organization is to relieve some of the financial stress and burden on families who, by no fault of their own, hit a hardship and are in need.

The local team in Alexandria worked behind the scenes, preparing things for the Leslie family. Their 9-year-old son, Bentley, was hit by a van in June and dragged more than 60-feet, leaving him with not only scars, but wounds that are still healing. Katie brings Bentley to seven or eight doctor appointments a week, where various specialists work to heal the still-open wounds on his back. He’s been in Ace bandages since June and still is unable to shower or bathe normally. He spends his time going between vision appointments, physical therapy, speech and counseling. His mom said he would much rather be in school.

“That would be a Christmas miracle right there, if his wounds would close and heal,” she said. 

The family puts hundreds of miles on their car traveling to doctor appointments and there are constant travel and medical expenses.

This year, her older kids knew things were going to be tight at Christmas but the gifts they received, she said, were totally unexpected.

“We’re used to giving, not receiving,” said Katie Leslie. “We’re very humbled; it’s hard to accept when you’re used to being the one to get the gifts off the tree (for those in need).”

Each volunteer team for the BCE organization works to gather donations for each recipient family. Then, they purchase multiple gifts for each and every family member. In the Leslie family, they worked with the Vogts and Cindy Brichacek to determine the family’s needs and wants.

The coordination of gifts was a community effort. Katie’s mom told the crew that they like to go camping as a family. Teachers at school communicated that Bentley wanted Legos and Nerf guns for Christmas. Katie received goods for canning and Mike got some fishing gear, they got camping gear for the family, a few date nights for mom and dad who haven’t really left Bentley’s side, money toward a hunting gun Hunter had been saving for and turtle supplies for their daughter.

The Best Christmas Ever organization leaders encourage their local team volunteers to raise at least $5,000 for each family that can be used to help financially as well. The dollars can go towards paying a mortgage, making a car payment, buying a previously owned car, or paying down medical bills or debt, among other things.

Ryan Cleland is one of the BCE captains for the Alexandria team which consists of eight people and some helper elves. The camping gear they purchased the family, he said, will be used to make new family memories.

“We try to focus on experiences,” he said. “What is going to relieve stress for these families in their time of need. We got camping equipment so they can get back to a regular life before their hard times, and help with bills so they don’t have to worry as much over the holidays.”

Stephanie Nynas is the director of operations for the BCE organization and said a lot of the families nominated are battling a health issue or their children are, or the family has lost a parent.

“That financial gift we ask them to do goes toward a life-changing gift for the family,” she said. 

They’ve sent families on trips, replaced broken furnaces, supplied families with gas for a year.

Every recipient family is gifted Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University course and, if they choose to participate, they receive an additional $1,000 that can be used to pay off debt. Additionally, they can choose to complete an eight-week health program and in exchange, they’ll receive an additional $1,000 in grocery gift cards to a store of their choice.

“We truly believe in shifting lives long-term, not just giving them a small financial help right now, but to give them the tools so they can be successful long-term,” Nynas said.

All in all, families receive gifts totaling $8,000 to $10,000.

This year alone, Nynas said the organization received 840 nominations from across the U.S. and Canada.

For the Leslies, the gas cards, grocery cards, date nights and Christmas gifts will not only help in the short-term, the smiles on their kids’ faces, Katie said, were priceless.

“This has been a rough year for us, just to see the kids smiling and happy and grateful and thankful,” she said. “They truly appreciated what went on.”

Even the Leslie kids commented to Katie on how different it was to be a recipient of someone else’s efforts. Each year, the kids in the Leslie family choose the wish lists of people in need off the Christmas tree at First Lutheran Church and buy gifts for those on the tree at the Todd County Health and Human Services Department. The family also gives to the food shelf, gives to the church, gives to the hat and glove tree and when a raffle or fundraiser is happening around town, they often donate money and turn down the raffle item or purchased good – choosing instead to gift money directly to the organization.

“It’s hard to be on the receiving end,” Leslie said. “But it’s nice to see our kids happy and smiling, they know the true meaning of Christmas is Jesus’ birth.”

The Leslies’ motto, as they’ve raised their kids is, “You’ve got to pay it forward always.”

It’s a motto that came from Katie Leslie’s father, Kevin Brichacek, who died 14 years ago of complications from cancer.

“I was raised on a farm and my dad always said, ‘help others, but don’t expect anything in return,’” Katie said. “That’s just how I was raised and that’s how we want our kids to be raised. It’s always better to help somebody and do good for others ... never, ever expect anything in return; someday the tables may turn like what happened to us.”