On the day I spoke with Carolyn Tarver, she had just returned from distributing Christmas gifts to 425+ families. Due to Covid restrictions, she did so outside in the cold, the temperatures hovering in the 40’s. As families did a drive-by pickup, she handed out presents she had gathered with the help of Bethel Ministries and various service organizations. She spent seven hours on her feet greeting each family, not to mention the countless hours and money required to purchase all the presents.
Did I mention that Carolyn Tarver is 82 years old?
It’s no wonder that this bundle of tireless energy is an icon in our community. She is someone who experienced a terrible tragedy that almost broke her, but with the help of God, she was able to turn it into a blessing for others.
Tarver lost her only child Stan to a terrible accident when he was only a teenager. The loss was devastating, and Tarver struggled to overcome her depression. “Stan died in 1983,” she reflected. “I was in such bad shape emotionally that I prayed every day I wouldn’t wake up the next day. But I did. So I decided that if I was going to live, I wanted to make my little part of the world a little bit better. My son graced my life and I needed to grace someone else’s life.”
Stan had been a thoughtful, giving child, one who inherently seemed to recognize need in others and try to address it. When he met a child at school who didn’t have much and never got to go anywhere, he asked his mother if she could take them to the park for the day. He reveled in his new friend’s joy and internalized the satisfaction of helping others. He carried that sweetness with him throughout his short life, and Tarver wanted to honor his kind heart by continuing his legacy.
She began by considering children with needs and started small with some local families who had provided a wish list. From there, the circle grew as she employed the help of church members, family members, friends of Stan, and eventually Bethel Ministries and service organizations like the Exchange Club and Sugar Land Rotary, who still support her to this day.
When a pastor mentioned a family in Alief whose apartment had burned down, leaving them with great need, she stepped in. Because the family was outside the bounds of Fort Bend, he was not able to help. Tarver understands this. When government assistance is provided, organizations are restricted to helping those within their geographical area. Tarver made the decision right then and there that she would help anyone she could, inside or outside Fort Bend. Eventually, when she began Project S.M.I.L.E., the organization whose name is synonymous with Christmas presents and school backpacks filled with supplies, she put her money where her mouth was.
“I consider this a Christian ministry and we don’t get government money and aren’t an agency that has to serve a certain zip code. The way I see it, if Jesus were walking on this Earth and he had a bag of toys and a bunch of kids surrounding him, he wouldn’t say, ‘Child, what’s your zip code?’”
It’s that feistiness and dedication to helping anyone in need that has grown her outreach over the last five decades. Yes, five decades. That’s how long she’s been buying and delivering Christmas presents to families in need. Recognizing another need, she added backpack and school supply distribution to her yearly commitment. This year, through her involvement with Santa’s Exchange, she provided presents for 1,916 children in Fort Bend. Through her partnership with Bethel Ministries, she served 425 children, some in Fort Bend, some in other areas.
“I didn’t plan this group – I wasn’t able to,” she explained through tears. “It was all God, putting the right people in place at the right time.” Tarver has story after story about people who appeared just when they were needed, property and modular buildings that became available just when she needed to expand her storage space, and even those she helped who told her about others who needed help. The needs have multiplied over the years, but so have the miraculous blessings.
“I love the scripture from Deuteronomy that says, ‘I set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore, choose life.’ It took me a while, but I eventually chose life.
“In the book of Isaiah, God said He would give His people a crown of beauty for ashes. I have seen God take a terrible tragedy and make beauty out of it in the form of the smiles on the faces of the children when they get their school supplies and Christmas gifts.”
Is there any more beautiful tribute to a boy who was such a blessing not only to his mother, but to everyone he met? Tarver keeps his light alive and doesn’t even realize that her special light is shining brighter than ever.