PINE RIVER, Minn. — A fire truck headed out of Pine River on Dec. 20, pulling into a rural driveway with lights flashing and siren blaring.

Fortunately, the truck wasn’t racing to a tragic holiday blaze.

Two firefighters led a caravan of vehicles to Austin and Kendra Kozelka’s home to surprise the family with the "Best Christmas Ever." The young couple — he’s 23; she’s 24 — recently opened their small home to five foster children, siblings who are ages 11, 9, 8, 4 and 3.

Austin and Kendra Kozelka (far right) stand outside with relatives and friends after they and their five foster children received gifts as part of the Best Christmas Ever program Sunday, Dec. 20. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal
Austin and Kendra Kozelka (far right) stand outside with relatives and friends after they and their five foster children received gifts as part of the Best Christmas Ever program Sunday, Dec. 20. Nancy Vogt / Echo JournalNancy Vogt / Echo Journal

The family quickly learned there was no fire anywhere. Instead, they were the family Woods to Water Real Estate in Nisswa chose to receive the Best Christmas Ever, a national, nonprofit program that strives to deliver a life-changing Christmas experience to a local family to show that even in the hardest of times, the family still has the community’s full support. Teams, like the Woods to Water team, sponsor a family “to literally try to deliver the Best Christmas Ever,” Colton Maher, Woods to Water broker/owner, explained.

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The family of seven, along with relatives and friends, watched as a seemingly endless stream of festively wrapped gifts were unloaded from a trailer, eventually filling more than half of the couple’s front porch. Five children’s bicycles were hauled out of another vehicle. Later, several trucks and trailers pulled into the yard and dumped piles of donated wood for the family’s wood stove.

“All these gifts aren’t going to fit in the house,” Kendra said with a smile.

“It’s pretty incredible,” Austin said. “I thought the house was burning down when I heard the fire truck.”

A Pine River fire truck escorted a caravan of vehicles to the Kozelka home in rural Pine River to surprise the family with the Best Christmas Ever. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal
A Pine River fire truck escorted a caravan of vehicles to the Kozelka home in rural Pine River to surprise the family with the Best Christmas Ever. Nancy Vogt / Echo JournalNancy Vogt / Echo Journal

Kendra thought the truck perhaps was heading to a neighbor’s home. The children, four girls and one boy, explored the fire truck with firefighters Dean Wynn and Kyle Hicks, and first responder Mary Wynn. They then took turns opening one gift each in front of the crowd of onlookers.

Kendra shared the couple’s story.


"A couple years ago we found out we couldn't have kids of our own. We talked about fostering. We bought a house and decided it was a good time to start that journey."

— Kendra Kozelka


“A couple years ago we found out we couldn’t have kids of our own,” she said. “We talked about fostering. We bought a house and decided it was a good time to start that journey.”

As they underwent the licensing requirements to become foster parents for what they assumed would be one child, their journey was fast tracked.

“This summer we got a call saying the kids needed somewhere to go,” Kendra said. “We went from a couple of two and boomed into a family of seven overnight.”

Austin added: “Every kid deserves a good home.”

“Stability,” Kendra said.

The couple, high school sweethearts who both graduated from Pine River-Backus High School, are familiar with the Best Christmas Ever program. Last year at the Woods to Water Real Estate office, they saw the tree with gift tags listing items for people to buy for the sponsored family. They made a donation, and this year they decided to help again, not knowing they were helping their own family.


"Every kid deserves a good home."

— Austin Kozelka


“We didn’t have a ton to give (last year). We gave a lot more (this year) to teach the kids that giving is what you should do,” Austin said, noting the importance of teaching the kids the value of money and family. “If you have it, share it.”

The couple agree they’ve taken on a lot.

“A lot of prayers asking God to just get us through every single day,” Kendra said.

“I didn’t plan at 23 on having five kids,” Austin said.

Brandon Hedlund, of Woods to Water Real Estate, and Pine River firefighters Dean Wynn and Kyle Hicks help unload a gift at the Kozelka home. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal
Brandon Hedlund, of Woods to Water Real Estate, and Pine River firefighters Dean Wynn and Kyle Hicks help unload a gift at the Kozelka home. Nancy Vogt / Echo JournalNancy Vogt / Echo Journal

Austin and Kendra both work, so the youngest child goes to day care while the older siblings attend Foothills Christian Academy in Backus.

“They are amazing kids and they are so happy,” Kendra said.

The couple’s friend, Kate Schmaltz, nominated the Kozelkas for the Best Christmas Ever program.

“I saw it on Facebook and I couldn’t think of a better family,” she said. “They are the first ones to offer help and they never ask for anything.”

The family also will receive $17,500 raised through online donations. The program’s goal was $7,500, and an anonymous donor contributed that amount Dec. 20 to far surpass the goal.

“Insane,” Austin said. “It’s crazy what the community came together and did.”

“We just can’t say thank you enough,” he said.

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.