‘Our goal every year is to simply give more’
With no extended family living nearby to share the holidays, the Carter family has discovered how to share their holiday spirit in a more expansive way.
On Christmas Eve in 2007, Monica Carter announced to her husband, Steve, and their five children, “We are going to pack lunches and take them to Skid Row.”
As she explains, “My parents no longer live here. Steve’s parents have passed away. Our five children (Marisa, Benjamin, Adam, Michele, and Becca) are the only family we have in California. We get so wrapped up in buying and receiving gifts; I thought that this would give us a chance to center ourselves.”
The idea to go to Skid Row had its genesis in her childhood. Monica recalls that her family drove to the rail yard in Los Angeles every year to the Christmas tree auction to buy a fresh tree. The trees arrived on train cars; the auctioneers shook them out, and shouted out the prices. The drive to the yard always took Monica’s family through Skid Row. She remembers seeing people living on the street, lying on sidewalks, and propped against walls.
She also remembers her mother’s admonition: “Open your eyes. Look around you. Not everyone is as blessed as you.”
Those memories and those words remained long after the train station auctions stopped.
That first Christmas Eve in 2007, the family packed about 15 lunch bags with tangerines from their yard, sandwiches, granola bars, and chips, gathered a few jackets and blankets, put on Santa hats and headed to Skid Row to distribute the goods. The reaction of the people warmed them.
“Their thank yous and the God bless yous, made us feel good,” Becca says.
Caught up in a moment of Christmas cheer, the Carters gave away their Santa hats too. That gesture was a huge hit. People put them on, threw up their arms and wished each other Merry Christmas.
(There was also a bit of laughter afterwards: When the family arrived home in Camarillo, Monica noticed that her jacket was missing, and realized that, in the excitement of their new venture, it had been given away.)
That first trip ushered in a Carter family tradition. The family, which gained a new member in 2009 when Marisa married Tanner Bickelhaupt, now drives two cars to Skid Row. The items they distribute have increased exponentially. Last year, they gave away 200 lunches, 75 jackets, 100 beanies, 50 pairs of socks, 30 scarves, 100 Santa hats — and one sleeping bag.
That one sleeping bag inspired last year’s favorite story. Adam wanted to give it to a woman or a child. When he saw a woman sitting by herself, leaning against a wall, he jumped out of the car and gave her the sleeping bag and a lunch bag. The woman said, “Thank you so much. I was just sitting here wondering how I was going to get through the night. You just gave me the answer.”
This year the Carters are even more ambitious. They have sent out invitations to friends, with a link to a video that Tanner made (YouTube, HYPERLINK "http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzRyZcjQaXY&feature=email" \t "_blank"Xmas Skid Row 2010) to come to a party at the Carter home where guests can donate goods, decorate lunch bags and write personal notes to put in them.
Service has always been important to the Carter family. When Monica was a teenager, she worked at camps for children with disabilities. Her sons, Benjamin and Adam, who graduated from St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura in 2006 and 2008, volunteered in the Special Olympics program.
Marisa, a 2004 alumna of La Reina High School in Thousand Oaks, says that the school’s Adopt a Family program at Christmas had a “huge impact” on her and her sisters, Michele, a 2010 graduate, and Becca, currently a junior. She said the program allowed them to put names and ages to the people in need. The Christmas requests at their parish, Blessed Junípero Serra in Camarillo, gave them a chance to give to others, too.
But the Carters yearned to be the hands that gave. “We wanted to give the gifts ourselves,” Monica says. “We live in a privileged world. I wanted my children to see for themselves that not everyone does.”
The good they do has inspired others. Marisa tells about family friends whose two young sons gave the Carters their Target gift cards to buy something for others. Steve’s work collects items, as does Becca’s dance studio.
When the Christmas Eve trip is over, the family goes out to dinner together and the talk inevitably turns to next year. “How can we make things better? How can we do more?” they wonder. After dinner, the Carters attend Christmas Eve Mass at Padre Serra, and, as Marisa states, “The tone for Christmas Day has been set.”
The Carters hope that their story will inspire others to create their own story — and in so doing learn what they have learned: that deeds, not words, matter; that it really is better to give than to receive; and that “while there is never enough to give out, our goal every year is to simply give more.”