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'Best Christmas Ever' seeks families to bless

The Penney family were 2013 recipients of Best Christmas Ever and now volunteers to give the same to other families. Best Christmas Ever founder Don Liimatainen is in the foreground. (Photo submitted)1 / 5
Don Liimatainen and his son, Hewitt, then 7, at a 2014 wrapping party at Thrivent Financial in Duluth with Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus. (Photo submitted)2 / 5
Don Liimatainen and Shawn Penney both had suffered setbacks and were recipients of Christmas gift. They are now giving back to others. (Photo submitted)3 / 5
Best Christmas Ever volunteers gathered at Thrivent Financial in 2014 to wrap gifts for a family in need. (Photo by Don Liimatainen)4 / 5
The Penney family in a July 4, 2015 photo, from left: Brendan, 16, Sophia-Ann, 13, and parents Nina and Shawn. 5 / 5

In 2005 at age 20, Don Liimatainen was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and underwent a complete colon removal that lead to further surgeries. Three weeks before Christmas 2010, he had a grayish tint to his skin and was losing weight and blood from continued complications. And he had a 3-year-old son. It was then, at his lowest point, that a family brought two big bags of gifts to his home.

"It went from the worst to the best Christmas ever. I realized that day that I didn't know when or how, but I wanted to do this for someone else," Liimatainen said.

Remembering Mother Teresa's words, "If you can't feed a hundred people, feed just one," he vowed to give back. In 2011, Liimatainen organized a group of friends and local businesses to help just one family in a major way by giving them the "Best Christmas Ever" (BCE).

The organization helped five families in 2013, 10 in 2014 and seeks to aid 20 in 2015. "The goal is to double the number of families BCE helps each year," said Liimatainen, owner of BizGro marketing and a self-published author.

One recipient was a family whose mother died, leaving the father with four children. Another family was chosen because the child developed cancer. Another was a military family. In another, the father went through colon removal like Liimatainen. (See "A family keeps the giving going," below.)

Nominations are accepted through Dec. 1. The criteria is simple: the family must have children and have fallen on hard times.

"If they didn't have any kids in the house, it just wouldn't be the same," said Liimatainen.

The organization is volunteer-run and seeks to create lasting change in a family's life. BCE addresses four pillars: health, finance, family and faith.

"We realized early on that once a person's health goes, finances soon follow. The strain of medical bills and being out of work leads to a breakdown of family relationships that lead to a loss of faith. We figure that if we can address each of these four pillars, we may be able to help that family long term," said Liimatainen.

Addressing these pillars is in its growth stage. BCE has made strides toward addressing the family and faith pillars by pairing families with mentors and inviting a local pastor to learn about the family at the wrapping party, then introducing them during the gift drop.

This year nine Northland regions have been selected from Moose Lake to Superior. The remaining 11 regions are spread throughout Minnesota with a few in Wisconsin.

"The biggest challenge is scaling effectively so BCE continues to grow. Our ultimate goal is to equip leaders in the community with the tools and a system to help a family massively; to create the infrastructure to allow it to live long past me or anyone else who is a part of it now," said Liimatainen.

Fox 21 News is advertising the nomination search, while four businesses will sponsor Duluth area families: Thrivent Financial, Real Living Messina, Gerdau Ameristeel and HealthSource Chiropractic.

Luke Hansmeyer, a Real Living Messina sales associate and former BCE board member, is helping this year.

"It's all about networking. Real Living will reach out to its list of lenders, contractors and inspectors, while the sales associates reach out to their personal networks telling them, 'This is what we're doing and this is how you can help.' What BCE is doing is giving people a really easy way to make a huge difference in someone's life," said Hansmeyer.

BCE gifts address the family's needs. One rural family who had unreliable transportation was gifted a used van. "Gifts range from $5 to $500. There are plenty of ways to help, from donating $10 to helping to wrap gifts or delivering them," said Hansmeyer.

Two fundraising events raise money to support the nonprofit. BCE holds a summer volleyball tournament and hosts a fall gala with live and silent auctions. The Minnesota Vikings were one of four gala sponsors. The other gold sponsors were Finish Line Wellness, Lockton insurance & Downtown Resource Group(DRG). 


"Watching BCE grow has proven to me that people do love people. Given the opportunity to help someone in the community who has fallen on tough times, people are more than likely willing to do that. It's neat to see it happen over and over again," said Liimatainen.

A full list of Northland giving-tree locations is posted at

How it works

Nominations are solicited between Nov. 1 and Dec. 1 each year. The Best Christmas Ever (BCE) board of five members approves nominations in various regions. Local businesses and the media partner with BCE to get the word out.

Each region is assigned a captain who works with the business partner sponsoring the family and the family's nominator to create a list of specific gifts for each family member.

When the gift list is finalized, BCE puts up a giving tree at the business partner location. When the gifts have been purchased, the business partner invites everyone involved to a wrapping party to celebrate. The gift drop occurs shortly thereafter and is a complete surprise to the recipient.

To nominate a family by Dec. 1 or donate money anytime, visit To donate time, gifts or wrapping services, or call (218) 310-5055.

A family keeps the giving going

Teri Collins works in circulation at the Duluth News Tribune. In 2013 her son-in-law, Shawn Penney, underwent total colon removal surgery after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. For five months, Teri and Jeff cared for the couple's children, Brendan, now 16, and Sophia, now 13, while Nina and Shawn commuted to the Mayo Clinic to address surgical complications.

Teri saw a blurb in the paper seeking nominations for the Best Christmas Ever nonprofit but didn't give it much thought. Her coworkers urged her to nominate Nina and Shawn. A few weeks later, BCE confirmed Teri's nomination.

"When they asked me what my 11-year-old granddaughter would like, I said, 'Hair barrettes.' They told me, 'No, think bigger,' recalled Teri.

Teri worked with the BCE captain to put together a gift list that would address the family's needs, including everyday things like toothbrushes, dish soap and bandages. Brenden received three months of boxing lessons so he could continue practicing, while Shawn received loose clothing in his favorite color that he could wear comfortably.

The experience had a lasting impact. The couple and their children volunteered last year with BCE and helped a family in a similar situation.

"Knowing what we went through traveling back and forth to the Mayo Clinic, it was helpful to know what to buy. I bought things for the wife like magazines, notebooks, pens; things that I would have liked when I was in her situation. We also purchased gas cards and a hotel gift card. Staying overnight gets costly," said Nina Penney.

Brendan, a high-school sophomore, plans to help a family in need through BCE as his senior class project.

"It's really taught our grandchildren to cherish life. They look at people differently now and understand why people may be where they are in life," said Teri.