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Carolyn Tarver - Project SMILE

Carolyn Tarver from Sugarland, Texas, a suburb of Houston, believes that it is her mission to keep her son Stan's memory alive through Project SMILE (Stan's Memory Includes Loving Everyone). Thousands of children and hundreds of senior citizens continue to be blessed because of Stan.

Stan died 26 years ago at age 17 when he fell off the back of a friend's car and severed the stem of his brain. He was, according to his mom Carolyn, a beautiful child, tall, blond, blue eyes, and a very sensitive and caring individual – from convincing his mom to help kids in a 5th grade class go to a special park for a special day of fun to making sure the man who loved his mom's banana pudding got fed.

"Stan always said that the important things in life are relationships, not material possessions or any other thing," Carolyn said. "He gave me more wonderful memories in his 17 years than a lot of mothers have in a whole lifetime."

What Carolyn does is appropriate to his memory with Project SMILE. This outreach program began in 1983, the year Stan died. One month before his death, Carolyn remembers taking Easter baskets to a youth shelter for poor children. She thought about it close to Christmas, called the shelter and got information about the children and their wish list, spending Christmas Eve determined to brighten their bleak holiday. She reached out to 12 impoverished families from depressed areas in Richmond, Texas. The following year she went door to door in these depressed areas and helped even more people. "I found it very heartwarming to reach out to them in their need and in my grief," said Carolyn.

As time passed service clubs like the Sugar Land Rotary Club and the Exchange Club of Sugar heard what she was doing and began helping her with both money and volunteer work. She spoke to various other organizations about the needs of many and about poverty. She says she has received letters from children who have said how much it helped their parents. One little boy said, "You're the best thing that ever happened to me. You knew just what I wanted. I really needed those socks."

This past year 3,368 children were helped, 1,227 with school supplies and the others with Christmas gifts, now known as Santa's Exchange. She doesn't solicit funds and says she gets more money for Christmas gifts, but school supplies are in great demand. In addition she gets help from athletes, churches, businesses and ordinary citizens donating supplies and funds annually. When she is given leftover holiday candy, she fills her car, drives to one of the neighborhood houses, opens her trunk and says, "Kids, go get your friends and come and get the candy." There is never anything left.

"This has been a beautiful outreach in Stan's memory and keeps me going," she says. It wasn't always like this. At first Carolyn had a very hard time. She didn't even want to wake up in the morning and face another day. But then a miracle came her way, a small grand nephew that she took care of for the mom who worked, named Cody.

"A lot of healing came those six years I kept him during the day for 8-10 hours," said Carolyn. "I was forced to focus on something else other than Stan. We had and still have a special love for each other. Cody is now 23, and visits often. He is a caring and sensitive person, and definitely helped me survive."

She thinks that God used Cody first and Project Smile second to get her where she is today, in addition to a loving husband Carlos, Stan's stepdad, who begged her to make it through her grief journey. She says Stan's death didn't affect him as badly as it did her, but realized much later on that he was in pretty bad shape. "We would hold, cry and comfort each other." Carlos still works during the day but is very

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