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Making the Holidays Brighter, Our Communities Stronger

by on December 19, 2018
Jim Carlson places ornaments on his “giving” Christmas tree.

(Story by Tawn Earnest)

Like a lot of people this time of year, Jim Carlson and his wife, Suzanne, throw a Christmas party for friends, family and neighbors. Their guests have come to expect at least three things. The party is always the first Saturday night in December. The Ohio State game will be on TV, “no matter how painful it is to watch.” At least one of the Christmas trees will be bare.

When Jim started throwing the party years ago, guests would bring huge casseroles and bottomless bowls of chips and dip. There would be enough dessert to stock a small bakery.

“Twenty people would show up with food to feed 20 people, which meant you had enough food to feed 400 people. And, there’d be nowhere to put it,” laughed Jim, a retired AEP accountant who recently came out of retirement to return to work at AEP.

But sharing and caring is an important part of celebrating the holidays. So, in keeping with that spirit, Jim asks friends to bring an ornament instead of food. At the party, they hang their ornament on a small tree and share the simple joy of decorating it together. After the party, the fully decked tree moves to Jim’s car and begins its journey to a local charity. Its final destination: a needy family’s home, where the holidays will be brighter, literally and figuratively, because of it.

The very first year, Jim drove the tree to a food pantry. A man saw Jim put the tree on the floor, and quietly asked if he could take it home to surprise his kids. “As we were loading the tree onto his truck, he told me, ‘you don’t know how much this means to me,’” Jim said.

It was a game-changer for the man, whose family had planned to celebrate with a plastic palm tree. And, it was a game-changer for Jim.

Jim’s party has donated a Christmas tree every year since. It’s been more than a decade. In some years, friends gave Jim trees. Most years, Jim buys a new tree (or two) on clearance in January ahead of the coming Christmas. The tradition lives on thanks to Suzanne, who cooks for days ahead of time. Many of Jim’s collaborators are former coworkers whose lives he’s touched in his decades-long AEP career. They aren’t surprised at all by his ability to connect to people’s needs and find people-oriented solutions.

Years ago, as a young accountant, Jim joined AEP’s Operation Feed Steering Committee, the annual fundraiser for the local food bank. He earned a reputation as a master networker who kept an A-Z binder of contacts that he constantly updated. Small talk with strangers while riding up on the elevator at AEP’s downtown tower opened a gold mine of details about family, hobbies and interests. Jim captured all those little details in his binder. The binder became a catalogue of both needs and leads. Jim used it as an excuse to reconnect and help his new friends.

“You were put on this earth for a reason,” said Jim, pausing to choose his words. “Maybe the reason is to help someone else.”

From → News From AEP

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