Just a week and half before Christmas, Kaylynn Pearse wasn't sure how she could afford the holiday.
Then, in the act of returning some lost goods she came across, Pearse and her family became the subject of a community outpouring of support.
Pearse and her husband, Andy, had both been out of work through most of the fall. Pearse just took a new job at the beginning of December but wasn't expecting a paycheck until after Christmas, and Andy works seasonally through the warmer months.
All the while, bills and payments were stacking up.
At best, she said it was looking like they were going to have sell off some of their stuff just to make vehicle payments, let alone buy gifts for their two kids, Andrew, 14, and Rita, 8.
On Dec. 13, Pearse was driving home on a dark Gaswell Road after dropping Rita and Andy off at the airport so Rita could see a doctor in Anchorage.
Lying in the middle of the street, Pearse's headlights lit up a dark object. It was her family's miracle, though she couldn't have known it at the time.
Piled high with Wal-Mart bags, Pearse discovered a black sled that had slipped out of a stranger's truck. She thought she had found someone's lost Christmas shopping spree and knew instantly how it would feel to lose a holiday.
The next morning she brought the stuff to the State Troopers and posted the item on Radio Kenai's Tradio, an online classified site. That same day she got a call from an appreciative Mike Young.
Young, who lives on Center Avenue off of Echo Lake Road, had been in Anchorage with a friend over the weekend buying stuff for his new home. The sled had been in the back of his friend's truck, which he said, "had tailgate issues." Needless to say, everything slid out on Gaswell.
The story might have ended there, two strangers brought together by a loss with a happy ending.
All the while however, Kenai resident, Sue Coon, 69, had been listening to the saga unfold over the radio.
Coon, who had no connection to either party, was so moved by the story she called Pearse to thank her.
When she learned that Pearse's family might not have a Christmas of their own, she decided she had to do something.
Coon put up an announcement on the radio and listed her number in a story published by the Clarion on Dec. 17 asking to collect gifts for the Pearse family. She wasn't too sure what to expect.
"The phone started ringing at 7:30 in the morning and never stopped," Coon said.
On Dec. 18 alone, Coon collected $325 in cash, including a $200 gift certificate to Safeway given by an individual.
In the week that followed people dropped off clothes, toys, food, video games, tools, the makings of a Christmas dinner and sewing equipment and materials for Rita.
Coon said individuals and businesses made donations, with some people offering the best they could in the form of prayers or a few dollars, while others gave hundreds in cash or goods.
"It was non-ending," Coon said. "It was like the sky just opened up and people started dropping stuff off."
She said the people who donated also surprised her.
In one instance she said a man in Soldotna wanted to donate a sewing machine and some candy, but didn't have much money for gas.
Coon, who's also largely stuck in her home by fibromyalgia, arranged to have the man drop the items off at the Soldotna Police Station where Pearse could collect them.
In another case a woman and her daughter visited Coon's home to donate $30, but Coon sensed the woman herself might have needed help as well, noting that she wore torn up sneakers and only a thin sweater.
Coon said she offered the woman a coat, or at least to step inside and warm-up, but she was too proud.
Coon said that while collecting for the Pearse family she also received a few pleas for help from others in need.
"The only thing that bothered me, that started making me cry, was there were a few people who wanted to know if could help them," she said.
Coon offered what she could personally, but she didn't want to detract from what she had said she was doing out of concern that people might not trust her and stop giving.
She did let them know anything the Pearse family didn't need would go to the Salvation Army.
While there was no end to the giving, Coon said there was also no end to her tears.
"My god the people that came by here, it was just, oh like I said, I have cried until I about made myself sick over these people," she said.
At one point she even made a donor a little concerned when she broke out in tears.
"When that guy called and gave the $200 gift certificate I just started crying and he asked, 'Are you OK?' And I said, it's just mind boggling" Coon said.
For Pearse, it was an emotional experience as well.
"Sue (Coon) collected everything and made sure we got every phone call," Pearse said. "We cried lots. Between the two us we were just amazed how much the community came together."
Pearse laughed that she'll probably get in trouble for saying so, but even her husband, who she said isn't an emotional person, cried as well.
Pearse said that while her children opened their presents she made sure they knew where each one came from.
"They both understand that had people not been as generous as they had they would not have got as much as they did," she said.
As for thanking Coon, Pearse said she wasn't even sure where to begin.
"We got her card and we've told her numerous times there's just no words to thank her," she said.
Pearse said she also wanted to make sure she passed on some of her family's good fortune on.
She said they were able to donate some of the things they received to their neighbors, who have also come across hard times.
She said however, that her family still has a ways to go.
"We're still trying to sell the snowmachine," she said. "We've got three months of car payments to catch up on, we're still not out of the woods, but the kids got their Christmas miracle and that's what mattered."
Coon said she'd never done anything like this before, though she's never been a stranger to giving her time. She volunteered through most of her life, especially for activities her children participated in, but this was different. She could relate to the troubles the Pearse family was up against.
When Coon was growing up in West Texas she shared a home with six girls and six boys, she knew what a meager Christmas was like.
In the fall of 1969, she moved her own family of four children to the Kenai Peninsula after her husband got a job working in the oil industry.
Not long after however, he lost the position.
"From then on we just about starved to death," she said. "We survived, I mean totally survived on beans, cornbread and homemade biscuits. I know, you don't have to tell me anything about hard times."
As the months went by, Coon said they couldn't afford new clothing for the kids and it was months before her husband found work again. In the meantime they couldn't afford new clothing for their growing children living in a vastly different clime than West Texas.
Nor could they afford the rent in their trailer in Kenai.
They got by however, on the generosity of a neighbor who paid the difference for them, asking only to be paid back when the family got their feet back underneath them.
"It's just absolutely crazy, people do things for you and you have to learn to do things for them," Coon said.
Dante Petri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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