'Super, super special': Elgin hotel clerk made Christmas fun for family displaced by fire

  • Chris Barrera set up a holiday scavenger hunt, made cookies and hot cocoa, and provided letters from Santa to Nathan and Anna Fawcett's three boys a week before Christmas, when the family had to stay at the Holiday Inn in Elgin after a fire.

      Chris Barrera set up a holiday scavenger hunt, made cookies and hot cocoa, and provided letters from Santa to Nathan and Anna Fawcett's three boys a week before Christmas, when the family had to stay at the Holiday Inn in Elgin after a fire. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/9/2022 8:50 AM

After almost two months in an Elgin hotel, where they had to celebrate Thanksgiving and their 7-year-old's birthday while their fire-damaged home was repaired, Nathan and Anna Fawcett weren't looking forward to Christmas.

But thanks to Holiday Inn Elgin front desk clerk Chris Barrera, what could have been a disappointing Christmas for the Fawcetts' three sons turned into something "super, super special" -- complete with cookie-decorating, letters from Santa and a holiday scavenger hunt.

 

"I like to pretend like I'm in a Hallmark movie," Barrera said. "I want to be that person who's going to make someone's dreams come true."

A fire on Nov. 3 left the Fawcetts' Pingree Grove home uninhabitable. They took up residence in the hotel with their three sons: Maddux, 11, Caleb, 8, and Declan, 7.

They initially thought they'd be there a couple of weeks.

"Two weeks turned into a month, which turned into two months," said Anna, who is 8 months pregnant with the couple's fourth boy.

Caleb, Declan and Maddux Fawcett got a Christmas surprise from Chris Barrera, a front desk clerk at the Holiday Inn in Elgin. He set up a number of holiday activities for them while they were staying at the hotel after a fire at their house.
Caleb, Declan and Maddux Fawcett got a Christmas surprise from Chris Barrera, a front desk clerk at the Holiday Inn in Elgin. He set up a number of holiday activities for them while they were staying at the hotel after a fire at their house. - COURTESY OF NATHAN FAWCETT
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Barrera instantly hit it off with the Fawcetts when they checked in, taking the kids for a tour and striking up conversations with them on their trips to and from school.

"He really bonded with the boys," Nathan said.

Barrera felt for the family with the holidays coming and wanted to do something to make Christmas more memorable.

So Barrera set up a surprise for the kids on the Saturday before Christmas, his day off.

He took letters the boys had written to Santa and then wrote replies, letting them know they were safely on the "nice" list. He put the letters in a mailbox in a little area of the hotel lobby that he decorated like the North Pole for them to find.

Chris Barrera, a front desk clerk at the Holiday Inn in Elgin, set up a "Letters to Santa" station for a Pingree Grove family staying at the hotel.
Chris Barrera, a front desk clerk at the Holiday Inn in Elgin, set up a "Letters to Santa" station for a Pingree Grove family staying at the hotel. - COURTESY OF NATHAN FAWCETT
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He also cut out paper reindeer heads and hid them around the lobby, creating a scavenger hunt for the kids.

Afterward, they hit up a hot cocoa bar he set up for them and decorated Christmas cookies.

"It was simple, but it was fun for them," Barrera said.

The gesture made quite an impact on the Fawcett family.

"It meant the world to me, and my kids loved it," Anna said. "They talked about it for days."

"I cried a lot. I mean, I really cried a lot," she said. "It was super, super special."

Chris Barrera, a front desk clerk at the Holiday Inn in Elgin, made it a merrier Christmas for the Fawcett family from Pingree Grove, who had been staying there about two months after a house fire. Among other activities, he brought in gingerbread cookies for the kids to decorate.
Chris Barrera, a front desk clerk at the Holiday Inn in Elgin, made it a merrier Christmas for the Fawcett family from Pingree Grove, who had been staying there about two months after a house fire. Among other activities, he brought in gingerbread cookies for the kids to decorate. - COURTESY OF NATHAN FAWCETT

Even though Barrera had told Nathan he had something planned, Nathan still was surprised.

"His heart is full of the holiday spirit," he said. "What he did for my kids, I would never have expected in a million years for anybody to do that."

The Christmas fun was the highlight of the two months the family had to spend at the hotel after a decorative wood stove cover caught fire and slowly burned, filling the house with smoke.

"It wasn't a major fire where our house burned down," Nathan said, "but it smoldered in the kitchen for hours, so our house was fully engulfed in smoke.

"It was a freak accident that turned in to a catastrophe," he said.

They weren't home at the time and no one was hurt, but most of the downstairs was a disaster. Everything in the kitchen had to be torn out and replaced, and most everything else had to be either thrown out or sent to a special cleaning facility.

Chris Barrera, a front desk clerk at the Holiday Inn in Elgin, created a scavenger hunt for the Fawcett boys to find Santa's missing reindeer, which he also made, around the lobby of the hotel.
Chris Barrera, a front desk clerk at the Holiday Inn in Elgin, created a scavenger hunt for the Fawcett boys to find Santa's missing reindeer, which he also made, around the lobby of the hotel. - COURTESY OF NATHAN FAWCETT

The family finally moved back home on Friday after more than two months of hotel living.

"It's been an adventure," Anna said. "But we got through it and we made a great friend. He's a really awesome guy who has gone above and beyond the entire time we've been here."

Barrera said he was happy to see the family finally get home.

"I'm just glad I got to know them and help make a special memory for their kids."

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