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Every Christmas season, the adults in the Earnest extended family each purchase a gift for the family exchange.

Piled high in the middle of the room, the wrapped gifts would be selected one by one. The next person in line had a choice -- take an unknown gift from the pile or steal an already opened one from someone else.

The tradition was a much-looked-forward-to event.

Then in 2014, Lynette Earnest suggested changing things up. She said she would explain it all at the family Thanksgiving.

But Lynette, who was in the final stages of colon cancer, was too sick to attend the family gathering, so she made her pitch via a conference call: Instead of giving silly -- and really unneeded -- gifts to one another, what if everyone put their money toward gifts for a family in need?

The intent was not to solve all of the family’s problems, but to bring them a day of joy and happiness, recalled Kara Earnest Burwell, Lynette’s sister-in-law and dear friend.

“That was Lynette," she said. "Always thinking of others.”

Her words were echoed by Bridget Kreifels, Lynette’s close friend and former co-worker, and Emily Earnest, Lynette’s niece.

“She had the biggest heart,” Kreifels said. “She always put everyone else first.”

The family loved the idea, Emily Earnest said.

Lynette -- the consummate planner and organizer -- found a family struggling with its own cancer diagnosis. She compiled a wish list of each family member’s desires and needs. Her elves/angels did all the legwork.

Delivery time was set for 1 p.m. Dec. 21, 2014. And Lynette made it clear that she "planned" to feel better so she could participate, Burwell said.

But at 6 a.m. Dec. 21, 2014, cancer ended 47-year-old Lynette's life.

That afternoon, family and friends delivered the gifts.

“We knew it was what she wanted us to do," Emily Earnest said. "She was planning on us to do it. It was on her calendar. We had to make it happen.”

***

Fast forward to early 2015.

Kara Burwell's Facebook page pops up with a memory from February 2014 -- the photograph shows a smiling Lynette and Mark Earnest attending a Malcolm benefit in their honor.

"The Malcolm benefit was huge," Burwell said.

The entire community came forward with food, entertainment and monetary donations. The memory made Burwell smile. It was as if Lynette was nudging her from beyond.

Burwell called her brother Mark, Lynette's widower, with an idea.

What if they adopted another needy family for Christmas -- one struggling with the emotional and financial ravages of cancer. The Earnest family could collect nominations at Thanksgiving, and then spend the next few weeks gathering gifts for their wishlists?

Mark Earnest loved the idea, so did his and Lynette’s twins, Austin and Addison. Mark Earnest kicked in money remaining from Lynette's community fundraiser.

The family was unanimous -- it was a fitting tribute to Lynette, who was always looking for ways to pay it forward.

And they all agreed -- the gifts would be delivered on Dec. 21, the anniversary of Lynette's death and the day "Lynette's Angels" made their very first delivery.

Two years later, Lynette’s Angels is now a cherished family tradition.

***

In 2015 four families were nominated.

While reviewing the nominations, Emily Earnest remembers saying “too bad we can’t help all of them … Or can we?”

And again, Burwell felt a nudge from Lynette.

“Why can’t we,” Burwell heard herself saying.

And so they did.

They spread the word among friends and coworkers. Beyond fulfilling wishes on family’s wish lists, people thought of the days beyond Christmas and New Year's. What would make life a little less stressful?

Gift cards for gas, food and everyday essentials flew in.

Among last year’s recipients was John Kildare, a Seward police officer. Cancer made it impossible for Kildare to get comfortable. Unable to sleep in his bed, he spent his days and nights in an old worn-out and broken-down recliner. Working with Slumberland, Lynette’s Angels showed up at at Kildare’s home in a pickup with a brand new electric recliner in its bed.

“You should have seen the look on his face,” Burwell said, choking back tears.

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John Kildare died in May. In his name, his family contributed $300 to Lynette’s Angels.

This year, Lynette’s Angels adopted three families. A fourth family was nominated, but declined the offer saying they had already received so much support. They asked that Lynette’s Angels help another family.

So touched by the “pay it forward” attitude of the family, Lynette’s Angels delivered coffee and cookies to Omaha’s Children’s Hospital and the adjoining pediatric oncology and hematology offices, where the family’s 9-year-old daughter Grace Fry battles acute myeloid leukemia.

Each family’s wishes are posted on the Lynette’s Angels Facebook page. Designed like the buy/sell/trade pages -- people simply click and “claim” which wishes they will fulfill.

“People are incredible,” Burwell said, in reference to the tremendous response.

The group also took part in two fundraisers -- a Fourth of July barbecue, and an ugly Christmas sweater pitch tournament this past December. Pitch was Lynette’s favorite game, Burwell said.

Lynette’s Angels is dedicated to keeping the momentum going year-long -- by committing random acts of kindness and asking others to follow suit some day in the future.

On Dec. 18, Lynette’s Angels made an early delivery to the Lincoln home of June and Lee Snyder. Lee Snyder is battling prostate cancer. In addition to gifts for the couple, the angels brought gifts for the Snyder’s 12- and 4-year-old granddaughters.

On Wednesday, Lynette’s Angels donned their special “Love for Lynette” T-shirts, adorned with the slogan "When life hands you lemons, make Lynette-ade," and made the last of their annual deliveries.

One stop was at the home of a Lincoln couple who asked not to be identified. The 40-year-old mother of two young children is battling liver cancer. The woman’s husband asked Lynette’s Angels to not give him a gift, but instead use the money to buy his ailing wife her favorite perfume -- a very expensive perfume.

A sly smile crossed Burwell’s face: "Of course we got him a gift too," she said.

***

The other stop was in Garland, at the home of Art and Lynn Weiland and their two sons, Marc, 7, and Gabe, 9.

Three years ago, Art Weiland, 54, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer -- by the time it was found, the cancer had spread to both lungs, his hips, spine and brain. The former state department of health and human services employee had never smoked a day in his life.

Doctors gave him 12 to14 months to live. He has defied the odds more than two-fold.

The battle to survive has progressed beyond chemotherapy, radiation and hospital stays. At times it seemed like bad luck is the only luck they have at all.

In 2014, Marc broke his arm, one week later Lynn shattered her ankle requiring reconstructive surgery and lengthy physical therapy. When employer-paid medical insurance ran out, the family’s monthly premium tripled.

Then the family car was totaled in an accident on icy roads just after Christmas 2015. A pipe leading from the well to their home broke, flooding their basement. Not long after the basement was restored, another leak damaged all the work that had been done.

With all the mounting bills, the family fell way behind on house payments. They are facing foreclosure proceedings at the end of the month, unless they can come up with $14,400.

The couple told their boys, there weren’t going to be many presents under the tree this Christmas. They brainstormed things they could make for one another, Lynn Weiland said.

So when she learned that someone had nominated them for Lynette’s Angels, she was overcome with gratitude.

But nothing prepared them for the arrival of Lynette’s Angels.

At 5 p.m., a car turned up their road. A second car followed. Then a third. And a fourth. And a fifth.

“They just kept coming,” Lynn Weiland said. "Marc was so excited that he began running circles around the house -- literally running circles outside of the house. Gabe didn’t know what to think. Then they got out of the cars with gifts in all different sizes.”

Burwell explained to the boys that they had contacted Santa and worked things out so that Lynette’s Angels could deliver the gifts.

Marc and Gabe theorized all night how that happened. Marc guessed they talked on the phone, while Gabe figured they Skyped. Marc decided they should Google it, Lynn Weiland said with a giggle.

At the urging of Lynette’s Angels, the family opened several gifts on Dec. 21. The biggest surprise: a 47-inch big screen television, to replace the aging and flickering monstrosity in the Great Room. There also was a basketball hoop for Gabe, a soccer net and balls for Marc, a saddle tree for Art, and for Lynn, a brand new pair of cowboy boots.

Many gifts were opened that night, but many many more remained under the tree to be opened Christmas morning.

“It was just overwhelming … in a good way,” Art said. “All these people smiling with all these presents.”

Said Lynn: “There was not a dry eye in this house. It was so touching for their (Lynette's) family, our family and the other families they help out. They are very very good people.”

Burwell thinks Lynette would be proud.

“Cancer sucks the life out of people, their families, their finances,” Burwell said.

Lynette’s Angels can’t come in and take all the bills away. But it can make things a little easier, which is why in addition to their wishlist gifts, each family receives close to $800 in gift cards to help with day-to-day expenses like gas, groceries and incidentals, as well as some respite in the form of dinner out, going to a movie or even a “spa day.”

“Usually, when we ask for wish lists, people tell us what they need," Kreifels said. "But we want to them have a good Christmas, and so we tell them it is OK to ask for something you want."

“And not feel bad about it,” Burwell interjected. “We tell them: Ask for the moon. If it can’t happen, it won’t. But we will definitely try to make your day better.”

Because as Lynette Earnest knew, dreams can come true, with the help of a few good angels.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.

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