A grand Christmas rolls in thanks to Walla Walla Sweets Roller Girls

The Walla Walla Sweets Roller Girls bring home a merry holiday for a family facing challenges.

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The Walla Walla Sweets Roller Girls prepare to invade a house on Juniper Street during the team's first community outreach effort.

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Emilie Lawrence, holding up the evidence to her dad Richard, is surprised to find only a lip of paper inside a Christmas gift.

"It's just paper!"

Little Emilie Lawrence could be excused for the note of surprise in her voice as she examined the inside of a beautifully-wrapped gift, which turned out to be a thin rectangle of paper about the size of a receipt.

It was the final scene on a night that the Lawrence family's home had seemed like the set of a TV special, made magical with special effects.

There was the beautifully-decorated front room, filled with peppy carolers. A small army of laughing women marching in presents, sporting yards of sparkly ribbon. The tree, generously sprinkled with ornaments, gleaming in the windows.

From the opening scene of youngsters eagerly peering around curtains to the frosty outside air to the robust evergreen being hoisted to the front porch, the night was a vision of the Christmas season.

It could have been part of the holiday movie favorite, "It's a Wonderful Life," perhaps the scenes left on the cutting room floor.

But the fact is, life hasn't been so wonderful to the Lawrence family.

Inside the modest home on Juniper Street, things go forward one step -- one crisis -- at a time.

Bobbie-Jo Lawrence, 35, has been ill for more than a year. A former homeland security planner for Walla Walla County's Emergency Management Services, she is undergoing her third round of chemotherapy following radical surgery to treat an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Her husband, Richard, 34, is attending school to earn electrician and windmill technology degrees. He began the quest to increase his earning power not long before his wife was diagnosed.

The couple -- in a second marriage for both -- are parents to four sons: Brandon, 17, Jeffrey, 12, twins Joseph and Daniel, 10 -- both of whom have autism spectrum disorder; a daughter Emilie, 4; and a nephew Brandon, 16.

Richard's sons Calvin, 13, and Kyler, 9, are also at the house from time to time.

With home census at a peak and Bobbie-Jo unable to work, this Christmas was destined to be a subdued affair. The family's utility bill had accumulated to nearly $600 and the kitchen microwave was held together with duct tape.

But the only jingle in the house was in the decorations Bobbie-Jo and Richard decided must go up, no matter that the hope of adding gifts under the tree was as slim as a spring icicle. "We told the kids we'll use what we have," Bobbie-Jo explained. "So we got it all out and put it up."

The situation turned out to be the perfect choice for the first community outreach effort of the Walla Walla Sweets Roller Girls, said skate club founder Kimi Schroeder.

When asked what the family needs were, however, Bobbie-Jo was loath to suggest anything more than food for a Christmas dinner, bath towels and sweat suits for the twins.

But she didn't understand what the Sweets had in mind.

The competitive skating team was founded this fall to participate in body-slamming, bone-crunching roller derbies, for sure. But the derby league also emphasizes making its presence known through service to others.

In a big way, it seems.

Through team members, families, friends and local businesses, gifts adding up to about $1,500 were donated for the Lawrence family Christmas.

Santa's sack on this evening held a new microwave, shoes, dishes, toys and more. Box after brightly-wrapped box was slid under the tree.

Then there were the gift cards.

Movies, wine and dinners out, privately catered and at upscale restaurants were tucked into envelopes to be opened Christmas Day. Holding enough promise to cross several wishes off Bobbie-Jo and Richard's personal list, had they imagined such possibilities.

But they never could have dreamed of this evening, the two conceded, tears puddling and occasionally spilling over.

Amidst the excited shouts of the little boys and the trill of Emilie's laughter, Bobbie-Jo and Richard looked stunned at the turn of events. What they expected to be a delivery of a few things had turned into a Jimmy Stewart kind of night.

As these things do, the best gift went to the givers, Schroeder said later. "Like the Grinch, my heart grew two sizes bigger that night." The humility, the realization of being part of something so much bigger," she added. "There were lots of tears," .

One skater's young daughter summed up her feelings on the way home, Schroeder recalled. "She told her mom, 'Christmas is not about getting presents, Christmas is about Jesus and taking care of people.'"

A week later, team member Nikki Williams added the star to the tree with the delivery of a new-in-the-box Nintendo Wii game, given as a donation. "Some anonymous person heard about this," Williams said.

The eldest Brandon cautioned his siblings before the gift was opened, she added. "He thought maybe it was just in that box. When they opened it and saw there was this new game, he looked at his mom and said, 'Mom, we can play these games as a family.' Imagine, a 17-year-old thinking like that."

The roller girls hope to get Bobbie-Jo out on the rink next week, even in her weakened state, Schroeder said.

"It's something she wants to do, just to give her some skating time."

And Bobbie-Jo may be a little lighter on her feet after the holiday gifting. That paper Emilie pulled from the pretty box?

"This is a receipt for your power bill," Schroeder said, as Bobbie-Jo and Richard stood speechless while their children continued to bubble over. "Merry Christmas."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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