MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — This Christmas Eve, WCCO brings you the story of two Minnesota mothers with an unbelievable strength dedicated to brightening the holidays for other families. It all started with a connection they wish they never made, but one that’s led to Christmases filled with hope for hundreds of others.
If you need a reminder of the good in this world, Rachele Chrismer’s basement in Jordan is bursting with it.
“I’m completely overwhelmed,” she said surrounded by treats, toys, blankets and books.
Under all of it is a reminder of how much bigger a boy made one family’s world.
“Everybody is here because of Zach,” Chrismer said. “To know Zach you loved Zach but once he smiled at you, you loved him more.”
Born perfectly healthy, Zach’s parents didn’t know anything was wrong until he was 17 months old. A strange walk and an eye strain left doctors with lingering questions.
By the time he was 6, Zach was in a wheelchair and still without a name for what was taking so much away. Doctors would finally deliver the diagnosis two years later: Infantile Neuroaxonal Dystrophy. He had one of just 100 cases in the world. It is a devastating neurological disorder described as a mix between Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases.
Determined to make the most of his life, Zach’s parents made sure he did all the things other boys did.
“I was lucky enough to get this amazing kid that I got to see the bigger picture because of him,” Chrismer said.
That’s why, this Christmas, they are all here to pay it forward to other families, a plan they modeled after another mother’s amazing strength.
Shannon Olson’s own donation drive started nine years ago under the worst of circumstances.
“We spent many nights at the hospital,” Olson remembered.
At 13 months old, her otherwise healthy baby boy Drew suffered a seizure. It began months of tests to find answers.
“They found out that Drew had Alpers’ disease nine days before he died,” Olson said.
The very rare genetic disorder took Drew’s life just days before he turned 2. His then 6-month-old sister McKenna tested positive for the same thing. Olson lost two children in less than a year.
“I remember everything about them. Their hands, their feet, their laugh,” she said.
No one would ever blame her if grief kept her back, but for nine Christmases she’s put out the call, collecting blankets, books and gift cards to make the holidays better for other families. The result was a delivery for families fighting their own unfair battles at a place no child should spend the holidays.
“Seventy-seven people bought a blanket and 77 people bought a gift card,” Olson said.
Since the deaths of Drew and McKenna, the Olson family has collected more than $20,000 worth of gifts for the families at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul. In a way it helps Shannon get through the holidays.
“Every Christmas is hard, but the first one — my heart just breaks for her because I know,” Olson said.
Back in the Jordan, a basement full of donations can’t hide the real reason they’re all here. Chrismer’s own son Zach lost his battle seven months ago.
After spending too many holidays in the hospital himself, there was no question where everything they collected would go. Families of the sickest kids on the sixth floor of Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis will feel what everyone who knew one boy taught them — that through the pain in life there is proof, this time of year, in the power of angels.
Donations to Chrismer and Olson’s hospital drives all started with a Facebook post. Christmer called it a “Zach Attack,” a random act of kindness she’s started in honor of her son. To see what people have done across the country in his name or to join in, click here.