A Wonderful Life … now

Good Samaritans turn nightmare before Christmas into Christmas miracle for Dunn Center family

Last week, Chantel McGowen wasn’t sure how Christmas would be for her family.


The Christmas tree she put up in her home in Arizona for her four young children had just been destroyed by the family pets – Chihuahuas. And like that tree, her personal life was also in shambles.

Her husband of 10 years was battling personal demons and McGowen was afraid how that would affect the kids. His downward spiral left her fearing for the well-being of the children, Leila 7, Landon, 5, Matthias, 5 and Mason, 3.

But now, it couldn’t be better.

Thanks to an incredible display of charity and human kindness from family, friends, and even strangers, McGowen will have a Christmas she will never forget. Ever.

She’s in her own apartment in Dunn Center, furnished and stocked with food, clothing, bedding, dishes and other utensils by the goodness of good people. They even put up a Christmas tree with several wrapped presents for the kids.

And she has a job.

“I couldn’t ask for better friends,” said McGowen. “I’m in debt to everyone. It’s so amazing and wonderful.”

McGowen, she said, has a wonderful life.

Not so, just a few weeks ago.

She was a long, long way from Dunn Center, the place where she grew up and holds many fond memories. That’s where she wanted to return.

McGowen knew  she had to get out, and fast. Although she didn’t want to go into her husband’s issues, she said he was in a treatment facility, but he could check himself out at anytime.

That’s when something special happened to that changed her outlook and disposition. Some say it was a Christmas miracle, others said it was the community taking care of its own.

McGowen called her mother, Mona Verreras, to discuss what she should do. McGowen considered briefly, moving in with her sister in Arizona, but daycare costs were enormous and would be difficult, if not impossible, to meet.

During that phone call, Verreras urged her to come home.

“I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. She told me that it was best for me to come,” McGowen said.

That decision put a whirlwind of giving into motion that provided a “perfect present” for Verreras and the return of McGowen and her kids to the warmth and security of her family and friends.

While talking to Verreras, McGowen wondered if she would be able to get her old job back at the DC Pub & Grub. McGowen had previously worked at the restaurant and lounge before moving to Arizona in 2014.

While on the phone, Verreras asked DC Pub & Grub owner Greg Armitage if he would consider re-hiring McGowan. He nodded yes.

Shortly after, Verreras secured an apartment for her daughter and the kids. And after her son-in-law in Arizona found cheap airfare, Verreras paid for them to fly into Bismarck.

Maggie Piatz and Carol Hicks were having lunch at the Pub & Grub last Friday as they often do and noticed Verreras was a little stressed. They offered a shoulder for their friend to lean on. She explained to them that her daughter was coming home to escape the abusive situation.

In the meantime, McGowen quickly packed a few things for herself and the children. She wanted to put some distance between herself and her husband. They basically came with just the clothes on their back. No heavy winter gear, and Leila was wearing flip flops – hardly the type of clothing one would need during a freezing snowstorm in North Dakota.

While the women were talking, Hicks turned to social media, asking for help. Her post read: “Hey Dunn County. We have a single Mother and her 4 kids that will be showing up in Dunn Center with just the clothes on their backs from Arizona this Sunday. She is finally getting away from a very abusive situation. Asking for any kind of clothing, household items, bedding, etc. anyone who is will to give up would be greatly appreciated.”

It didn’t take long for people from Dunn County and around the country to respond. The responses were a tidal wave of giving. By 9 p.m., there were 76 responses from people wanting to help.

There was winter clothing for the children. Warm blankets. Food. Furniture. Beds. Electronic equipment (television, VCR and DVD player). Dishes. And food, plenty of food – meat, vegetables, bread, fruit, eggs and milk. Most donors requested to remain anonymous, but those measures of charity will forever be in McGowen’s heart.   

McGowen flew in on Sunday, an adventure in itself. The kids were nervous about flying, especially Leila, who said “I’m afraid of heights.” But they quickly made friends with the other passengers and even flight staff.

People gave them soda and snacks during the flight. McGowan’s forever grateful for their kindness.

But she had no idea of the kindness that awaited in Dunn Center.

Verreras and her boyfriend, Mark, drove to Bismarck to pick up McGowan. A Dunn Center man loaned them his car so they would have enough room.

They returned from Bismarck about 11:30 p.m. and they drove straight to the apartment.

“I walked into that apartment and I was stunned. It was literally the nicest home I’ve ever seen,” McGowan said.

And the tree – a beautiful symbol of hope – stood out like a monument of the time. The presents were neatly wrapped in colorful paper, with bows and ribbons.

They eagerly ripping into one present each, except for Mathias, who was asleep at the time. Leila got a stuffed dog while Landon and Mason each got a car.

“It was really nice,” Leila said. “I was happy and warm.”

“It made Christmas a blessing, a happy one. This could’ve been the worst Christmas ever,” said McGowan, her voice trailing off.

After a brief moment to compose herself, McGowan smiled.

“I’m not a person with a lot of words. This community saved my sanity,” she said.

Christmas miracle? Who is to say.

“People have been wonderful,” Piatz said. “But that’s Dunn County. I am very proud of everybody. I can’t say enough for the generosity.”

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