Last year, Edina resident Kristen Karpinsky became a volunteer with Minnesota based nonprofit called Best Christmas Ever (BCE). The organization serves families who have fallen on tough times through no fault of their own by blessing them with the “best Christmas ever.” Karpinsky says it was a heart-warming experience. Her team captain was Julie James of Edina who agrees that it was a particularly moving experience.
Julie James (photo by Tate Carlson)
James has a long history of volunteerism in the community, and after years of saying “yes” to everything, she was in the midst of a season of rest when she first learned of BCE. “Lou Nanne Jr. is on the board. He posted the founding story [about Best Christmas Ever] video on his Facebook page and offered to meet with anyone considering being a volunteer captain,” says James. “I thought [the organization] was awesome and that it aligns with my values, but I thought, ‘I can’t do it right now.’” But, two days later, James messaged Nanne because she couldn’t get the opportunity off her heart. She would also call her mother-in-law, someone she admires and trusts to ask for advice about the timing of getting involved. “She told me, ‘if it’s on your heart, you must answer that call and it will all be provided to you.’” James heeded that advice and you won’t believe what happened next …
James says that as a volunteer captain, one of the first things you do is select a family to support from a list populated by nominations. “Right here in the Twin Cities, there were over 500 families nominated by people who know them very well. You read through story after story that rips your heart out,” she says. But one story in particular resonated with James. The couple were college sweethearts who married and had two young children. “They were doing life right, hard workers and really good people,” James says. “But then, one day last summer, the dad was sitting in traffic on I-494 and a semi-truck plowed into him and killed him on impact. This family had no warning and I just felt very pulled to pick this family.”
The next step is to contact the family’s nominator and plan the surprise. “Thank goodness there is a captain’s packet that includes everything you need, including scripts of what to say when you call,” James says. “I’m not much of a crier and the script went something like ‘hello, my name is’ … and I maybe made it through my name before I was crying. Then we were both crying.”
Once the pair overcame their emotion, they got to work developing a gift list for the family. James relates the experience to being an expectant mother who has an immediate bond with someone they haven’t met yet. “Never in my life have I loved strangers as much as I love that family,” she says. “There were four weeks between selecting this nominated family and delivering their gifts and I wanted to fulfill the whole list.” James reached out to community members. She notes that part of the commitment is to raise $5,000 to help cover the nominated family’s financial needs and she wondered how she would raise the money. “I’m not connected. I’m not working. I was shaking in my boots wondering how we were going to raise the money,” says James. “But it wasn’t tough at all. We raised the money within three days and ended up raising over $12,000 for the family."(Purchased gifts are delivered to nominated families at a surprise event but cash is not provided directly. It is placed in a fund used to pay bills or expenses. Financial and health and wellness related education is also offered as a way to provide ongoing support.)
After a wrapping party at Davanni’s, it was time to surprise this mother and children with the best Christmas ever. James says, “When you walk up to that door as a volunteer captain, your heart is pounding and there are butterflies in your stomach.” It would be the beginning of what James calls an unbelievable connection with Trina Lawrence of Woodbury.
Lawrence says, “At first I thought my friend had brought over carolers. Then, I saw just a few familiar faces in the crowd, like my parents and teachers from daycare … I felt immediately overwhelmed … I knew that Drew [her departed husband] was there and God brought this gift into my life for a reason.”
“Trina calls me her life coach,” says James. “I’m not sure what I did to gain that title, but she tells me that when she calls me, things feel better.”
Lawrence says, “[James] has truly become a friend, source of support and inspiring presence in my life … BCE showed up at my door during a very dark time. They gave us the best Christmas ever, which was overwhelming enough, but on top of that, they connected me with tools and classes to support my family’s physical, spiritual and financial well-being … I am reminded that I have been supported fully and gained an amazing friend.”
That’s part of what James loves about BCE. “We come in during a time of darkness and loss, when families cannot imagine how to ‘do Christmas’ emotionally or financially … we bless them and I gained an amazing friend. She’s a wonderful person to have in my life and I want to continue to be a part of hers and her kids’ lives. It’s been a gift. You realize you are not only a vessel of hope and joy and love for the family but for everyone involved along the way.”
When talking about “everyone along the way,” James speaks highly of the community of Edina. She says, “I was born and raised here. I came back to raise my family here … Edina has been special to me and is an incredibly giving community of people who are really invested in helping others. Edina residents move mountains … I couldn’t have done it without the Edina community.”
The goal in 2020 for BCE is to secure 150 volunteer captains to bless families in the U.S. and Canada. Readers are also encouraged to nominate families in need. During COVID-19, the organization remains focused on health recommendations and some methods of obtaining gifts and funds may look different than in past years. James says, “Last year, we partnered with Tradition Companies.” They hosted a gift tree decorated with requested gift items that employees could purchase and donate. James says, “This year, we are encouraging Amazon gift lists as a contact-less way to gather gifts,” but she is uncertain if teams can host wrapping parties this year. “My family may wrap all of the gifts for our team this year,” says James who is also thinking creatively about what the drop events might look like, especially for families that might have health concerns. “We will have adaptable plans,” she says, confident that volunteers who share the values of faith, hope and community will find a way.