Children enjoying an In 12 Days celebration. Photo: Courtesy of Suzanne Lea
When a sudden fatal heart attack took Suzanne Lea’s husband from her and their two young sons in April 2008, she was in shock. By December, she was in despair. “We didn’t even have a way to hang our Christmas lights without Bryan,” the Las Vegas-based mother tells Yahoo Parenting. “We could see neighbors thinking about helping but they didn’t know what to do, so they just turned their backs. We felt abandoned.”
Then one morning at 7 a.m., her doorbell rang. “I was thinking, ‘Its child protective services for the kids,” jokes the mom to Matthew and James, then 6 and 9 respectively. But there was no one there, only a bowl of pears. “As a widow you get all this stuff, used clothes and food, so all I thought was, ‘Great, now we have some pears,’” she says. The next day the same thing happened, with a different anonymous gift. Daily “Twelve Days of Christmas” themed presents poured in day after day. At the one-week mark, something really special happened. “We started to feel a bond with the community,” she says. “And on the 12th day, we were off-our-faces excited and stalking the front yard. There wasn’t any pain left in our hearts at all.”
Suzanne Lea. Photo: Courtesy of Suzanne Lea
It wasn’t just the perk of non-stop presents (which turned out to be from members of their church) that transformed the trio. Lea says it was feeling loved. “That was huge because when you’re hit with a big tragedy, the darkness is so overwhelming inside of you that it doesn’t let you go,” she explains. “You just want to know that you’re going to have a full life again. And that’s what happened on that 12th day. It gave us something to believe in.”
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She decided to pay the feeling forward and began lavishing others in “emotional poverty,” as Lea calls it, with anonymous treats each holiday. The do-gooder kept upping her efforts each year and in 2010 founded the charitable organization In 12 Days.The Las Vegas-based group aims to bring the same yuletide joy Lea experienced to local individuals that she identifies in coordination with local schools, religious groups and community organizations who are going through a hard time. “We have people impacted with every awful scenario you can imagine: murder, suicide, amputation, unemployment,” says Lea. “And the craziness of all the gifts and magic of the experience allows us to lift them up.” Sometimes, literally.
In 12 Days recipients celebrate. Photo: Courtesy of Suzanne Lea
“We work with huge sponsors that allow us to do really amazing things,” she says, noting that In 12 Days has flown recipients around in helicopters and surprised others with overnights in posh resorts. “The companies get a taste of what this can do for people” and want to be a part of the feel-good movement. “By taking lots of families at once, married couples, school groups,” Lea adds, “we’re pulling a whole community together.”
Photo: Courtesy of Suzanne Lea/In12Days
This year’s campaign is already in full swing. Two thousand volunteers are helping her deliver goodies – including the “turtle doves” (50,000 Dove Chocolate Promises poured over inflatable pool turtles), airline tickets for a whole family and a rally of the College of Southern Nevada student body to support one of their own, suffering from Cerebral Palsy, whose entire family has died – each day leading up to the grand finale benefit Dec. 13 at the Michael Jackson ONE theatre. The event will feature Cirque du Soleil performers, Jersey Boys stars, and the Society Pipes and Drum Band.
Previous finale bash with Cirque du Soleil. Photo: Courtesy of Suzanne Lea
“I’m so proud of what we do,” says the founder, who has written a book, In 12 Months, about her journey, the proceeds from which will go back, in part, to the charity. “In 12 Days is a celebration of life that gives you strength to move forward on your own through grief.”
One family’s 12th day party, including Henderson, Nevada Mayor Andy Hafen (right). Photo: Courtesy of Suzanne Lea
And the results speak for themselves. “The consistent response we get from our honorees is, ‘This has totally changed my life,’” Lea reveals. “Through this experience, they really get this infusion of desire to live again.” Just like she did.
Lea and son, Matthew, watching the release of helium dove balloons. Photo: Courtesy of Suzanne Lea
A volunteer delivers gifts, Dec. 3. Courtesy of In 12 Days/YouTube