Group brings Christmas spirit to Minnesota families dealing with tragedy

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Mac Johnston spent part of Christmas Eve hiding in a trailer, sitting on an all-terrain vehicle and waiting for a cue.

At the right moment, Johnston would drive the ATV up to the house of an unsuspecting family, surprising a child with the gift. It is a process the North Branch, Minnesota power sports dealership owner has repeated for the past three years, focusing on families who have dealt with devastating circumstances.

“It’s the right thing to do I guess, giving back to the community,” Johnston said, choking back tears before Monday’s first delivery in Vadnais Heights.

Johnston, his father and two friends visited three homes on Christmas Eve. Two families had recently lost a husband and father, while a third family had a young child dealing with cancer. The group also provided the families with gift cards donated from local businesses.

The first stop was at the home of Lora Clem, whose husband Dave died nine days earlier after battling cancer. Family friend Alyssa Cunningham nominated the family when Dave Clem was still alive, and Johnston said the visit would be the most difficult of the day because of the recent loss.

“I nominated her a couple months ago thinking that he was going be here for Christmas. Unfortunately, he’s not. He didn’t make it,” Cunningham said. “I emailed them again and said, ‘Here’s an update. It looks like he’s not going to be here. Please bless these kiddos – they mean a lot.’

Lora Clem’s two-year-old son got Batman toys and clothing. Her six-year-old daughter received the ATV, which she took for a test-drive with Johnston at the controls. The children’s grandparents have property north of the Twin Cities where they can use the ATV, Johnston said.

The second stop was at the North Branch home of Andrew Herges, 6, who is battling cancer.

Michelle Braden, whose daughter Olivia attends first grade with Andrew, nominated the family. 

“He’s brave, strong and mighty,” Olivia said, standing next to her mom before the surprise.

Andrew was enthusiastic about the ATV, quickly climbing aboard when Johnston offered to show him how to ride it. His mother, Mary, said it was the second big gift the family had received this month: the first was that Andrew’s tumor has shrunk after weeks of intense chemotherapy, a development that Mary Herges called “huge.”

“It’s amazing – truly amazing,” she said about the family’s Christmas gifts. “Completely unexpected.”

Johnston, who owns East Central Sports in North Branch, gave a dirt bike to a child of a third family. The child’s father, a North Branch firefighter, committed suicide this year.