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The mother of three has had such simple needs for Christmas: toys for her kids, food for her cupboard, shoes for her feet.

But last year, Shana Subbert was overwhelmed.

“We were really spoiled. They gave us gift cards. We had a house full of food. It was beyond what you would ever think of getting. I’ve never had a Christmas like that.”

Laura and Zach Bennett had a simple need, too: to fill the grief-lined hole that broke open when a degenerative disease stole their daughter in 2010.

They’d had one beautiful Christmas with Sam. Zach gave mother and daughter matching diamond necklaces, angels.

But then the next winter approached.

“And it kind of struck me: ‘Oh, my gosh. It’s going to be such a sad and lonely Christmas without her. Let’s find someone else to buy Christmas presents for,’” Laura said.

That first Christmas without Sam, Laura and Zach pooled their own money with donations from friends and surprised a family of strangers. Last year, they started a Facebook group and gathered enough money and gift cards to meet the needs -- and some of the wants -- of two families.

Shana Subbert learned from her caseworker her family had been selected. She and her husband, Daniel, have three kids -- 4, 5 and 14. One son is autistic, another has behavior problems.

The day of the delivery, the presents kept coming. Barbie Dolls and a Barbie house and a GI Joe. Lego sets. A Wii that helps the oldest son stay busy and in control. A stockpile of groceries. Gift cards.

She was surprised, at first, by the growing stack of gifts. And then she felt blessed.

“I got a pair of shoes, like tennis shoes. We’re very poor, and I hadn’t had a pair of brand new shoes in a really, really long time.”

Along with the gifts, Laura included a children’s book: “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You.” Shana still cries when she reads it. And she was touched by all the personal notes from the donors, wishing her family a good Christmas.

The recipients were strangers the first two years. This year, Laura heard about a family at Madonna, where she teaches. A mother who struggled to get here from Africa, a teenage son left paralyzed by a recent spinal surgery, two little girls, an uncle and a grandmother -- and not a bed in the house.

They have so many needs Laura and Zach decided to limit their effort this year to the one family.

Laura was buoyed by Slumberland’s donation of new beds. And students and staff at Cavett Elementary, where Zach teaches, are helping out. But they still need to collect money and Target gift cards to buy the family shoes and blankets and clothes. The family could use a computer, too.

And when they’ve gathered enough to give the family Christmas, and they’re wrapping it all up, Laura will buy another children’s book.

She’ll slip in a note, telling the story of their daughter, of the spinal muscular atrophy that took her three months before her first birthday, and that one holiday they shared.

She’ll include a photo of their smiling, big-cheeked baby.

“She was just 9 months old. … She had big brown eyes; olive colored skin and was absolutely stunning. She loved to hear us sing to her, and we spent countless hours dancing around our home with her in our arms. … We got 1 Christmas with her, the best Christmas that we will ever have!”

Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

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Reporter

Peter Salter is a reporter.

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