Sometimes the best Christmas present isn't the one under the tree. Sometimes the best Christmas present is around the tree.
That was true for Brianna and Diane Friesz last December. They are purchasing the first Habitat for Humanity house built in Lake County in recent years, and the first fully-accessible home to be constructed by the Brookings area chapter.
"We moved in right before Christmas," Brianna said. "We didn't really decorate for Christmas, but we did have a Christmas tree."
That was enough because, for the first time in her life, the 33-year-old woman is both safe and comfortable in her home. She doesn't have to worry about falling while climbing into the bathtub. She doesn't have to worry about burning herself when she prepares a meal.
"She's never had a home that was completely accessible," said her mother, Diane. "There were always places in a home that were difficult for her to use."
Brianna, who has cerebral palsy which makes it necessary for her to use a wheelchair, has not let that curb her independence. Instead, she has learned to adapt to her environment.
Before moving into the house located on Silver Creek Circle, she lived in an apartment which did not accommodate her wheelchair. When she describes what she likes about her new home -- the space -- her explanation reveals how she lived in that apartment.
"I like the fact that I don't have to get on the floor to get around, the fact that I can use my kitchen. I couldn't do that before," Brianna said.
Prior to moving into the house, she was injured more than once while engaged in the normal activities of daily living. She scalded her leg while trying to drain spaghetti. She severely burned her arm when she lost her balance and fell into the oven. She bruised her ribs when she fell attempting to get into the bathtub.
Now, she can be independent -- can make a pot of soup or a pan of brownies -- without endangering herself.
"We knew it would be wonderful," Diane said, "but we had no idea how much it would change her life."
The Brookings Area Habitat for Humanity held the ground-breaking in June 2018. Clint Hall of Hall Construction was the lead contractor, and Marshall Dennert coordinated volunteers. Both are members of the Madison United Methodist Church, which was the lead organization.
Unfortunately, construction took longer than anticipated, primarily due to weather-related issues. More than a year after the ground-breaking, the house was months away from completion. However, in December 2019, the home was dedicated and the Friesz family moved in.
For both women, it has been an adjustment, primarily because they have not lived under the same room since Brianna was in high school. Diane said she enjoys it.
"There's nothing better for a mom than having your kids under the same roof," she said.
The design of the house -- with Brianna's bedroom and fully-accessible bathroom to the left of the common living area, and Diane's bedroom, bath and a guest room to the right -- affords them both a great deal of privacy. At the same time, they can enjoy time together in the living room and kitchen.
Both, though, revel in the sense of freedom the new house has given Brianna. Tasks that others might consider chores are now opportunities for Brianna to exercise the independence which is so much a part of her nature.
"I'm cooking a lot more than I did in the apartment, and I have a lot more room to move," she said.
She has more space for her craft projects, such as beading and scrapbooking, and a front porch where she can spend time with her cats in the sunshine. However, she appreciates the more mundane aspects of home ownership, too, like doing her own laundry with the front-loading washer and dryer.
"People donated the money to put risers under the washer and dryer so I can reach them," she said. She can also reach the clothes in her closet because the rods are lower.
For Diane, who works at Bethel Lutheran Home, seeing the way the home has transformed her daughter's life is the real blessing. She is incredibly grateful to the people who made their new home possible.
"So many put so much time into it," she said. "As people came in to help, they thought of her."
She noted that there isn't a space in their house which wasn't designed for Brianna's convenience. As the work progressed, changes were made when they were identified. For example, the patio at the back of the house was extended as a result of a donation.
As the weather has warmed up this spring, Brianna has been able to get fresh air by sitting on the front patio. She is planning to have a planter garden on the back patio this summer.
"These are things she hasn't been able to do," Diane said.
If there is a message she wants to send out into the community, it is gratitude for all of these things.
"If you can get across how grateful we are, how grateful as a mother I am, to the people in this community who came together and did this for my daughter -- I can't tell you how many good things people and organizations in this town did," she said.