SHOREWOOD, Ill. - Christmas came early for an Illinois firefighter and his family. The single father and his seven children are facing a tough time as one child battles a serious illness.
Thanks to the generosity of others, the Otte family celebrated Christmas on Thursday. There was joy, excitement and Santa Claus. All of this, after a year that many people would have had a hard time enduring.
Instead of a sleigh, Mrs. Claus and Santa arrived atop a firetruck to visit the Ottes.
"I'm in shock again, but a good shock," said Jeff Otte, a Frankfort firefighter.
The happiness and joy apparent Thursday was erased in January with a surprise diagnosis.
"When someone tells you your son has cancer, it was like, shock. Like, just jaw drop," Otte said.
His oldest son, Brandon - just 8 years old at the time - needed a tumor removed from his skull. Four days before Brandon's surgery, the family was struck with another blow. Otte's wife left him.
"With seven kids, and then me, and then me in the hospital," Brandon recalled.
Those children now range in age from 9 to 18 months. Jeff Otte's sister helped, but then the family endured another twist.
"She was diagnosed with breast cancer in May," Otte said.
Others stepped in. Strangers donated to the family's GoFundMe page. On Thursday night the community led an effort to help them celebrate Christmas.
"I think this Christmas is gonna be be very, very, very, very very special, because I'm gonna be here with all of you guys and lots of friends and family and people helping us," Otte said.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation will send the family to Disneyland on Monday. The GoFundMe page will help pay for nannies to help take care of the children while Otte is on-duty at the firehouse.
Having been through so much and starting a new year, the family just enjoyed the moment.
"It's going to be hard to beat," Otte said.