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On a cold and dreary Sunday afternoon, the BenefitCrashers huddled outside the VFW hall in Prior Lake. The group of about 50, wearing blue T-shirts, said a prayer, stacked hands, flung arms up like a forest of high-fives. The day was about to get warmer and cheerier.

The group headed into the building to crash a stranger's party.

The dictionary defines "crash" as sneaking into a gathering, uninvited, to pilfer food and drinks. BenefitCrashers' goal was the opposite — they weren't there to take, but to give. At the crowded VFW, some paid the $20 cover charge and placed bids in a silent auction for locally donated gift baskets and signed athletes' jerseys. Some didn't make a purchase, but hoped they could communicate a sense of caring and support for the event's honoree — a local woman recovering after a bone-marrow transplant — simply by being there.

Laura Henrickson, a former special education teacher who lives in Eagan, started Benefit­Crashers in May 2018. She'd had a couple of family experiences that taught her what a difference it makes during a personal crisis when people show up and offer to help — even if they're strangers.

In one case, her niece was diagnosed with leukemia, shortly after Henrickson's brother and family moved to Belgium. They knew nobody nearby. All their loved ones were 4,000 miles away.

"They felt so alone, and I felt so sad about that," Henrickson said. (Happy ending: Her niece is fine now and the family has moved back to the States.)

On the other hand, when Henrickson's mother was dying 14 years ago, residents of her small Wisconsin town brought hot dishes, offered massages and sat with her mother during her three months of hospice so family members could take breaks. Henrickson was amazed at how much she appreciated those efforts.

"People came out of the woodwork," she said. "I saw the love people gave my family."

Together, the two experiences gave Henrickson the idea of crashing benefits. By "benefit," she wasn't thinking of a swanky gala where people in fancy clothes raise money for a cause. What she had in mind were those come-as-you-are gatherings that communities hold to raise money for an individual or family struggling with an illness, an accident or a house fire. The sort you might see publicized on a homemade flier taped to the back of the cash register in a small-town convenience store.

Their causes are sad by definition, but the benefits are festive. There might be beer and burgers or pizza or spaghetti, and music by a local band. To raise money, they might collect a cover charge, or hold an auction or raffle with prizes donated by local businesses.

Why go to a restaurant, Henrickson thought, when you could spend your money on a meal and music at a benefit — and help someone at the same time?

So she started gathering groups of friends, seeking out benefits being held for complete strangers and crashing them. Well, not exactly crashing — they contact the event organizers in advance to let them know they want to attend, but their appearance is a surprise to the guest of honor and other attendees.

BenefitCrashers, as they came to call themselves, can pitch in for a cover charge or raffle ticket, knowing every dollar will go directly to help someone who's struggling. But Henrickson's friends aren't rich, she said. Nobody is required to spend a cent; it's their presence that counts, she said.

More people joined Henrickson as they heard about this novel way to combine a fun outing with a good deed. They brought their kids and spouses and co-workers. Henrickson's friend, Leah Morris, learned about it and wanted to be involved. Morris, who had recently left a job in marketing, used her skills to give BenefitCrashers a big-league look, with professionally designed brochures, a logo, a website and a slogan: "Hope Crashes Hardship."

BenefitCrashers became an official nonprofit. Friends in Wisconsin were inspired to open two more branches there.

They've done 30 crashes so far, aiming for one a month. They'd like to see the idea keep spreading.

"We would like it to be a movement throughout the world," Morris said.

Former beneficiaries, having experienced how great they felt after a visit from BenefitCrashers, sometimes want to join the groups and pay it forward. Diane Goulson of New Prague was there that day in Prior Lake because BenefitCrashers had been there for her the previous year. When the Lutheran pastor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her daughters and friends threw a benefit. Though reluctant at first — as a pastor, she was the one who was supposed to help others — Goulson was moved when more than 500 people attended, including the BenefitCrashers.

"It took my breath away," she said, brushing away a tear. "I bawled. I still do, thinking about it." Goulson underwent surgery and chemotherapy and has been told her cancer is in remission.

Sisters Jodi Mayrand and Jamie Kirchner of Lakeville were there at the VFW on behalf of their late mother.

"She was very into spreading kindness," Mayrand said. "We kind of do this in her honor."

And others, like Ian Curran of Farmington, do it mainly because it's fun. That Sunday, he traveled to the Prior Lake VFW from Mankato, where he attends college. It was his sixth benefit.

"My mom told me about this and I'm like, 'Yeah, I want to go,' " Curran said. "I just show up, try to have a good time and talk to people."

Katy Read • 612-673-4583 @Katy_Read