This year has been an unforgettable one for Ashley Kelsay. Her troubled marriage disintegrated, her car was repossessed, and without a home of her own she and her four children left the West Coast for her older brother's home in Alexandria.

The new beginning has come here, where she spent a couple of her childhood years. Kelsay has been slowly putting her life back in order, putting her children at the forefront. But with the help of caring professionals at several agencies, her family has a temporary place to live and she has a job, and the former certified nursing assistant is studying to obtain a license to do that in Minnesota.

"It's what my aunt did when I was a kid. That's how I came to love nursing," she said, adding that her passion is helping senior citizens. "I've always had a special connection with seniors, even as a kid. I enjoyed visiting my great-grandma, seeing how caring my grandfather was to his mother. I loved that."

The path for Kelsay hasn't been easy, and there's still ground to cover. She is expecting to deliver a baby next month at Children's Hospital at Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis - a baby that she says has been diagnosed with a birth defect.

It's all too fresh at times, and the tears flow readily down her cheeks as she recounts how her life has changed in so many ways.

It changed again in December.

A gift

In the half-dozen years the Douglas County Car Care Program has been operating in Alexandria, the only month it has had no cars to give away was November. They had large families in need of a vehicle, and, accounting for car seats, not just any vehicle would do. It would have to be something larger than a car.

Then one day the phone rang. An area couple who wished to remain anonymous said they had a donation, but would it be all right if they waited until tomorrow?

"This couple, they were amazing," said Kris Chisholm, executive director of the nonprofit car care program.

They put brand new tires on it, gave it an oil change and a bath, and filled it with gas. Even better than that, their vehicle was a 2004 Chrysler Town & Country van.

"We just couldn't believe it. 'If you can wait a day?' How much better can you get than that?" asked Colleen Boesen, a volunteer who has been with the program since it started in the basement of Bremer Bank. Along with others on the program's board, she has repeatedly witnessed the gift of something people generally take for granted. It never fails to move her and the other board members.

"We are kind of known as the town criers, because we are a very emotional group. Whenever we have a chance to give a car away, we have a tendency to cry," Boesen said, recalling the recent words of a child on the receiving end of a vehicle: "Mommy, do you think we can keep this all day?"

"And there we went again," said Boesen, who has also seen people get back on their feet and give the vehicle back so it could be regifted to someone even more deserving. The month-long drought was hard, but she and others kept praying, and a van came out of nowhere.

"It wasn't that there weren't people in need, we just didn't have a car. And then for this to happen!" she said. "Thank you, Santa Claus."

Like Boesen, Kelsay cried at the sight of the van. She was surprised at the condition it was in, and that it had heated seats, a DVD player for her kids on those trips to the hospital in Minneapolis, and power doors on both sides, which for kids ranging from ages 13 to 2 "is awesome."

"That family could have just turned it in as a down payment for another vehicle, but instead they just donated it. We're really grateful. I've been stressing about being able to get around," she said. "We were elated this whole week."

Kids first

For Kelsay, moving here was about one thing: her children, Brody, Aubrey, Brice and Braiden. But it was still a huge step to leave California.

"There's so many single moms out there who are afraid to speak up or get help, and they stay in bad situations for those reasons," she said. "It's hard to start all over."

For Kelsay, it came down to overcoming her stubbornness, and living up to what she firmly believes.

"What's the most important thing in my life? My children. I have to put them first," she said. "I thought (by) staying with their dad I was putting them first, but I really wasn't."

Once they arrived here, Kelsay felt at home. Her son attends Discovery Middle School, a school she attended as a teen when her stepdad worked at Nelson's Creamery. She was aware of the school district's reputation, its smaller class sizes and lack of crime. "I love the fact that the schools offer help in any areas the kids are struggling in," she said.

Kelsay had moved around as a child, but her kids were used to a warm-weather state.

"Transitioning from hot weather to cold was kind of hard for my 6-year-old," she said. He was stunned the first time he fell in the snow, "because the snow hurts."

Aside from the weather, Kelsay said the change has been good for her children.

"My kids are happy here. I told my mom, 'I don't know really where my kids would be if not making the move here.'"

To the rescue

Her children were used to getting gifts they needed at Christmas time, and maybe a couple of toy gifts. This year is different.

"I've always been able to take care of my children, and pay for a majority of things their whole lives - their clothes, toys, everything. Then to lose my job, my vehicle, my home," she said.

Help was right around the corner, from United Way, CareerForce Alexandria and West Central Minnesota Communities Action Inc., among others. Kelsay got the phone number for West Central and within a week they found a place for the family to live.

"They were always asking us, 'Do you need anything else?' They have always been very kind," Kelsay said. "I refer literally everybody to West Central."

"We want you to succeed, and we'll figure out what you need to get it done," Amber Holmstrom, family and community services coordinator with West Central, told Kelsay.

The organization offers numerous resources for assistance. However, it's one thing to have programs to help, and another to get people to ask for help.

"I didn't go to them expecting help in any way. I was desperate for some type of day care," Kelsay said. "You have to not be afraid to say something and speak up. I've never been the kind of person to take a handout, so it was really hard."

Chisholm objects when he hears anyone refer to what his program does as a handout.

"A vehicle is not a handout. It's a hand up," he said.

Holmstrom agrees, saying her agency is a stepping stone for people to move on to bigger and better things.

"Everybody can fall on hard times," she said.

The odds of becoming self-sufficient increase greatly with education and if, like Kelsay, they are doing all they can, said Holmstrom, calling her very ambitious and a go-getter.

"She's always been thinking about her kids first, which is huge," Holmstrom said. "She's never once said, 'I'm going to move back to California.' She's always trying to move forward here."

Making things happen

Chisholm is impressed at how many people are working every day to help people become contributing members of society.

"We live in a community that is second to none in the way that we give with our hearts," he said. "It's a very Christian-based community, and you have people who really rally around you."

That Christian component is important for Boesen, too.

"We pray hard for these things to happen, and we see miracles all the time," she said. It's just that people don't always see them or recognize them when they happen, she said.

Chisholm was paying attention, and he saw it when this particular van was dropped off.

"We just felt like this car had a bigger purpose," he said. "Being a faith-based organization, God put that car in the right place, for the (anonymous couple) to pay it forward. We didn't know why they didn't trade it in. We obviously know why now. That van is a Christmas miracle."