Carol Tyree. We worked together for over a decade. We retired together on the last work day of 2011. She was more deeply devoted to her family and her church than anyone I had known. And we shared several seasons of a clothing ministry she expanded upon in one of the poorest parts of West Virginia.
In 2010, Carol attended a church gathering, as she did each summer that I knew her, in North Carolina, where she and her sister taught vacation bible school; there she also learned of a Coat Drive for children in West Virginia. As she told me one morning at work, after she’d returned, “The pastor said a lot of the kids don’t have coats for winter.” When she understood the vast extent of their poverty, she said to the pastor, “Why don’t we give them shoes and socks, and pants and shirts, along with their winter coats?”
The pastor replied, “If you want to do that, you go right ahead.”
And she did. She engaged not only her church in the ministry, she easily engaged me without even trying. “What if I knit hats for each child?” I asked, literally aching, as I always have, to help people living in poverty. In this situation they would be children that I’d, in all likelihood, never meet.
She enthusiastically said, “That would be great.”
As I watched television during those dark winter nights, I knit 30 small hats in every rainbow color for the children. I could complete one every other night or so. Now I wish I’d photographed them before I took them to Carol, for today they are a memory even more precious.
During two of the winters, we shopped during January sales for coats and other clothing for next year’s children. I clearly see Carol now in Rosa’s Department Store one winter afternoon a few years ago as we explored the children’s section. She was leafing through hangers on the coat rack, then pulled out a pink coat and said in her soft, gentle voice, “Oh, look at this one.” Her hazel eyes shone as she held the hangar above her shoulder so I could see the small coat. “Isn’t it adorable?”
I smiled, sharing her joy. She put the hooded coat in her cart and we moved on to another rack, where Carol pulled a small pink print pajama set, held it up, and ran her fingers tenderly over the fleece fabric as if the baby who would receive it was already surrounded in its soft embrace. She smiled. “It’s so soft. Feel it.” I stroked the soft fleece and marveled at the velvety feel.
Carol and David, her husband, had raised two wonderful sons, Matthew and Ben, whom they loved dearly. Yet, in Carol’s heart, for as long as I knew her, there remained a tiny space for a little girl, the girl I always hoped would come to her as a grandchild. Thus, while she enjoyed choosing clothes for both genders, she particularly adored choosing little girl clothing. Her delight was contagious.
We filled our carts to the brim with coats, jackets, and more for greatly reduced prices, neither of us paying attention to the amount we spent. Our delight was in visualizing the children who would receive these gifts from the heart, gifts given in the deepest spiritual sense of the holiday.
“You can’t imagine how much these kids appreciate any little thing,” Carol told me, describing a little boy whose coat was much too large. Yet he was unwilling to give it back to her, because he was so thrilled to have a new coat, even one way too large. She always returned with dozens of stories to share and some pictures showing the sheer joy the children experienced.
These memories are treasures I can never forget. Last Easter, I left VA for three months to help care for cousin Norma in Las Vegas, as she traversed the rocky road of Stage 4 brain cancer. When I returned home, I read a Facebook post by Carol saying she had a long road ahead of her. Taken aback, I wondered: had something happened while I was away? I called her and she told me of her stage 3 cancer. I was blown away. How had this happened so quietly, so quickly in such a short time?
I visited her twice. Carol was feeling better the second time I visited with friends Lynn Foster and Bobbie Cash. We shared a lovely two-hour visit, rich with conversation about past memories. Carol also told me that working at the Free Clinic for those ten years had been the best job in her life. When we hugged good bye, Carol was clearly tired. We talked about another visit soon, and in the future, going out for lunch again as we had so many times. The next day she was scheduled for a blood transfusion. The following day she was gone.
I miss Carol more than I can say. After someone I’ve loved or known well dies, I always have a profound ache to do something, anything to help. As I waited for an idea to come, I learned that Carol’s church is carrying on her quiet, wonderful ministry. They’ve established a fund named Carol’s Coats.
So this winter, again, I’m knitting hats during my quiet evenings, stitches filled with love as I think of young children in West Virginia whose lives Carol’s ministry will continue to touch.
Shalom, my friend. You made such a gentle, quiet difference in our world for all the days you were here with us.