Heather Ditzler first met Chris in seventh grade.
Even then, he was the love her life, she said. But they both moved onto other things, and it wasn't until several years later, after both of their first marriages had ended, that they caught up on Facebook and agreed to meet for drinks.
As the meetup drew closer, Heather said she was surprised at how nervous she was.
"This is an old friend, this is no big deal," she said she told herself - but out of that meetup grew a relationship, and the blending together of their two families.
"We honestly haven't left each other since that day," Heather said.
Chris Ditzler proposed on New Year's Day of 2014. That May, the couple bought a house. Then they had a wedding.
Then, Heather had a sore throat.
After a trip to the Minute Clinic and five hours in the emergency room, doctors determined she did not have strep, gave her antibiotics for tonsillitis and sent her home. But the antibiotics weren't working, and the swelling was getting worse.
After some testing, doctors determined Heather had Burkitt's lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Heather had cancer before - papillary thyroid cancer back in 2010, four years before this second diagnosis, which doctors said was unrelated. But this time, Heather would have to undergo aggressive chemotherapy.
She said there were tears and anger when she broke the news to her family that September.
"Delivering that message for the second time was really heartbreaking," she said.
From there, her family sprung into action. Her dad shut down his retail business to become her "chemo partner," driving her to and from treatments. Chris, who was working in Chaska at the time, would drive back to their home in New Richmond, Wis., to set up Heather's medication, shower, sleep and then go back to work.
During this period, everyone was busy and Heather was always sick. The goal was to "make whatever normal we could," she said.
That’s when Heather’s cousin, Jessica Lozano, stepped in - secretly.
Though the Ditzlers didn’t yet know it, Lozano had nominated them to receive gifts and assistance through “Best Christmas Ever,” a nonprofit organization that partners with local businesses to “lift up families who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own,” its website says.
The idea for Best Christmas Ever began in 2010 with a single dad fighting ulcerative colitis who wanted to make his son’s Christmas special. This year, the nonprofit had a goal of 200 families. At press time, Lozano said they had received 218 qualified nominations.
Though a high volume of nominations come in from the Duluth and Twin Cities areas, Best Christmas Ever has helped families across the United States, in Canada and even in Costa Rica.
The Minnesota Vikings raised money and bought gifts for a family in 2017, and this year, Vikings’ cornerback Marcus Sherels and New Orleans Saints’ punter Thomas Morstead have teamed up to help more families through BCE.
Lozano, who lives in South St. Paul and works in Woodbury, is a team captain this year for BCE. Team captains are the core volunteers who seek out businesses to help out specific families.
Lozano is sponsored by Jerry’s Foods and Orangetheory Fitness in Woodbury this year, and because she has two sponsors, Lozano will pick two families to receive a Best Christmas Ever. Coordinating with nominators, who usually know the family well, team captains ask for 10 gift ideas for each family member. The gift ideas will then be put on cards, which will adorn a Christmas tree at a sponsor location. Visitors to each sponsor location can then take a gift idea card, buy that gift and return the gift to the sponsor location unwrapped.
The gift ideas can range from $20 to $1,000 or more.
“Nothing is too outrageous or crazy,” Lozano said.
Sponsors then host gift-wrapping parties for team captains ahead of the gift “drop,” which should be a “complete surprise” to the family, Lozano said.
In addition to the gifts, each captain has a goal of raising $5,000 per family, which will be used to pay for needs the family has at that time, whether it’s help with the mortgage, medical bills or a larger item they may need, such as a wheelchair ramp.
The gift drop
Meanwhile, Chris and Heather were preparing for a Christmas with fewer gifts for their four children.
A couple of days before Christmas 2014, on a day Heather and the kids had planned to bake Christmas cookies with Lozano and other family members, Heather saw several cars she didn't recognize pull into her driveway.
Then came a knock on the door. It was Lozano and her husband, Andrew.
Then came the gifts.
"They brought in just an amazing amount of gifts like you wouldn't imagine," Heather said. "My oldest daughter started crying - they didn't know what to think."
"They had more than I ever could have imagined or given them."
Lozano's reaction was emotional as well.
"To see them drop to their knees and start crying about (receiving gifts), it was awesome," she said.
Along with gifts for the kids, the family's biggest need was a new washer and dryer. BCE was able to give the Ditzlers a gift card to help them purchase new ones.
That December, Heather beat cancer for a second time, and she's been giving back through BCE ever since. In 2016, the Ditzlers adopted a family that included a man with life-threatening heart issues. The family asked for "really simple things," and the Ditzlers were able to help put gifts under their Christmas tree.
This year, Heather is a team captain. Her business sponsor is Tangled Salon and Spa in Hudson.
"It's very humbling to do that drop knowing that people really do appreciate the kindness," she said.
How to nominate
Families can be nominated to receive a Best Christmas Ever through Thursday, Nov. 15, by going to www.bcemovement.org/nominate-a-family. Nominated families must include children, and families cannot nominate themselves.
Nominators will be informed of selections Nov. 19. On Nov. 22, trees will go up in sponsor businesses. Gifts drops usually take place Dec. 17-23.
The organization also has a separate donation page at www.bcemovement.kindful.com.