When Elizabeth Wilkerson got up at 4 a.m. to help her husband Mark, a semi-truck driver, off to work, she never expected she would soon be on the road as well.
But that's the way random acts of kindness often present themselves: as unexpected errands of mercy, divine serendipity guided by the map of the human heart. And when you have a huge heart like Wilkerson, there is no hesitating, no second guessing, not even if it means driving 750 miles.
Still sleepy that weekday morning a couple weeks before Christmas, Wilkerson, who lives in Lawton, a village in Van Buren County, flipped on the TV and was transfixed. It was a story on "Inside Edition" about a young family in Atlanta whose beloved German Shepherd named Noah literally took a bullet to save his family.
"My heart just kind of stopped," Wilkerson recalled recently in an interview with The Detroit News. "This wasn't a dog tied up in the backyard. This was the family dog who was in the vehicle with them and died protecting them."
Kadon and Diondra Martin, along with their four small children and Noah, had just parked their Chevy Suburban at a strip mall. While Kadon Martin had gone into a store to buy a new dog collar for Noah, a road rage incident escalated into shots being fired in the parking lot.
A frantic 911 caller told an operator: "I heard around eight gunshots outside in the parking lot."
"Glass was flying over my head," Diondra Martin told "Inside Edition." In the back, a bullet hole pierced the seat just inches from where Diondra's son was sitting in his car seat.
Noah, the German Shepherd, jumped into the front seat. Diondra said Noah was trying to shield her. "His body was pushing me to stay this way," she explained. The bullet hit him in the neck. "It was so heartbreaking," she said. "I saw the hurt in his eyes."
Still, the gravely injured Noah jumped out of the vehicle and took after the gunman until the dog collapsed. Kadon Martin ran after his wounded dog and tried to revive him, but it was too late.
Watching Kadon Martin break down on camera was all it took. Elizabeth Wilkerson sprung into action. "I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do."
Along with Fran Rood of Hylock Kennels in Ada, Wilkerson had recently bred a litter of show quality German Shepherd puppies.
Working her German Shepherd connections, Wilkerson found a contact in Atlanta who reached out to the Martin family to see if they would be interested in a German Shepherd puppy. Kadon Martin then called Wilkerson.
"We hit it off right away," Wilkerson said. "I told him how sorry I was and we talked about how dogs are family members and when would be a good time for me to come down."
Wilkerson and Rood chose a 9-week-old (born Oct. 6) sable-colored German Shepherd (Noah was also a sable) and promptly named him Kris Kringle. With $750 raised on gofundme.com (Wilkerson had set $300 as a goal), she had more than enough to cover gas, a couple bags of dog food and the first few vet bills. Arriving on Dec. 9, Wilkerson said: "The Lord blessed me with beautiful weather both ways."
Wearing a Santa hat and carrying Kris in her arms, the kids were over the moon. Even Kadon, the dad, was crying. "Of course then I started crying," Wilkerson said, laughing.
While the Martins call her their Christmas angel, Wilkerson said she's living proof of the adage, "it's better to give than receive." "This is the best Christmas present I ever gave myself," she said.
The Martins now send photos and updates of Kris regularly. He's been taught to ring the bell to go outside and follows Diondra everywhere. Wilkerson plans to visit the family in June when she will be in Atlanta for a dog show. "I have a feeling we will be friends for life."