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Penneys from Heaven surprises Superior family

For Darrell Howes, his children and their dog Honey, Christmas came early. The Superior man opened his door Thursday, Dec. 20, to find a parade of people with presents. They brought in load after load of wrapped gifts and a new bicycle, a shower ...

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Darrell Howes, left, hugs Nina Penney, one of the founders of Penneys from Heaven, after she and other volunteers brought Christmas presents to his home in Superior on Thursday, Dec. 20. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

For Darrell Howes, his children and their dog Honey, Christmas came early. The Superior man opened his door Thursday, Dec. 20, to find a parade of people with presents. They brought in load after load of wrapped gifts and a new bicycle, a shower of giving from the nonprofit Penneys from Heaven.

The moment was indescribable, but he tried to put it into words.

"Blessed, overwhelming, just like I hit the lottery," Howes said. "I don't know how to say thank you enough. Those aren't the right words for something like this."

He wiped his eyes after sharing a hug with his cousin, Desiree Hughes, who nominated the family for the program.

"I'm not crying, you're crying," Howes said.

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Each of the family members opened one present before the guests, who filled every spot of the living room.

"You guys are angels from heaven, seriously," Howes told them. "Thank you."

The scene has played out with different families over the last five years. Every time, it takes nonprofit founder Nina Penney back six years to when her family experienced a similar outpouring of gifts. The thoughtful presents included gift cards for gas and hotel stays as the family drove to and from medical appointments.

Having all that care and support from the community was touching, she said.

"It was nice because it took the weight off my parents' shoulders that year," said her daughter, Sophia Penney, 16.

They've been paying it forward ever since with the help of Penney's parents, Terri and Jeff Collins, and friends like Jen Schorr. Penneys from Heaven provides thoughtful Christmas gifts to Douglas County families who have fallen on tough times through no fault of their own. The 2017 recipients included a family whose father was facing terminal cancer and another family in which the father died unexpectedly.

This year, 29 families were nominated for the program. Two were chosen.

"It pulls on your heartstrings," Terri Collins said. "You wish you could help them all."

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When Stacy Fornengo nominated her co-worker for gifts, she had no idea how much work went on behind the scenes.

"I didn't realize they did all this," she said. "Every time I think about it I get tears in my eyes. It's just amazing."

Fornengo was also put to work as an investigator, finding out what the family she nominated truly needed.

In past years, the nonprofit has sent in sleuths to rifle through dirty laundry to get sizes, quiz recipients to discover their favorite colors, measure stove openings for new appliances and more. Schorr sometimes cruises through alleys to get an idea of wall colors and house layouts, trying not to get busted. One year, they worked with nominators to repair a family's car on the sly.

Once families are chosen and lists made, the nonprofit sets up trees at local businesses. Ornaments on each tree ask for specific gifts - a basketball, a game, a piece of clothing. They even include gifts for family pets - a pull toy for Honey and bird seed for another family's parakeet. Between community donations, monetary donations from businesses and fundraisers, they collect the needed presents.

On Sunday, Dec. 16, the group gathered to wrap presents and store them in this year's "sleigh" - a cargo van donated for the week by Benna Ford. Delivery dates were Thursday, Dec. 20, and Saturday, Dec. 22.

"This is a lot of hard, hard work, but in the end to walk to somebody's door and say to them 'Merry Christmas' when they weren't expecting it, it's the most amazing feeling in the world," Schorr said.

Superior High School seniors Chloe Kintop, Jaylynn Glaus and Dakota Caddy made Penneys from Heaven their senior project this year. They put up a donation tree at SHS and got some one-of-a-kind presents for recipients, including a jersey signed by the SHS hockey team and basketball signed by the basketball team.

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What they saw Thursday left them overwhelmed.

"It's heartwarming and just so nice to see other people happy," Caddy said.

"I don't think you can really put it to words, giving back this much to a family," Kintop said. "I think Christmas should be more about giving to others."

Howes' children had no problem finding the right words for the situation, however.

"Can I open one more?" they asked their dad.

Visit penneysfromheavenblog.wordpress.com to learn more about Penneys from Heaven.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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