One family takes to the streets on Christmas Eve to find the true meaning of Christmas
On a chilly November evening, Dwayne Campbell hauled a large, industrial calendar home from work. He asked his wife, Claudia, if she wanted it. With two children in high school, four younger girls schooled at home, and each person involved in a million things, Claudia had a lot to keep up with. She couldn’t find space for the calendar, however, and was about to toss it when nine-year-old Bethany intervened. A few days later, Claudia found the calendar in Bethany’s room, turned to December. The following note, decorated with penciled heart and cupcake, was on the 24th: “The day I will feed the homeless.”
“This was before she wrote her Christmas presents list or even marked ‘Christmas’ on her calendar,” Claudia marvels. “I didn’t tell the kids, ‘Hey, remember about the 24th!’ We’d done it for so many years that she was anticipating it.”
Claudia posted a picture of Bethany’s calendar on Facebook with a “Thank you” to those who had ever taken part in the Campbell family’s enduring tradition: helping to deliver care packages and serve breakfast to the homeless in downtown Austin on Christmas Eve morning.
Christmas Eve Tradition
The Campbell family started feeding the homeless on the 24th in 2007, when they moved from southern California to Williamson County—they haven’t missed a year. Dwayne and Claudia were looking for a way to nurture their kids’ benevolent hearts. In California, they’d traveled to an orphanage just across the border in Mexico every month or every other month with a truck full of donated clothes and food or hands to assist with construction projects. When the family moved to Texas, they wanted to find a similar family activity.
“For our kids, it’s more than just getting gifts on Christmas,” Dwayne says. “It’s about doing something for somebody else.”
The first Christmas Eve, they loaded their kids in the van and drove around to find the homeless. Over the years, former homeless people and leaders of nonprofits dedicated to serving the homeless offered tips that steered them to a bridge under the overpass of I-35 and 6th Street. As neighbors, friends, and friends of friends heard about the family’s service and asked to help, the outreach grew to include more hands. Last year, about forty people showed up to participate. “Some of the people, we didn’t even know who they were! People just hear about what we do and want their family to be a part of serving,” Dwayne recalls, still a little surprised at how their tradition has expanded.
The set-up is a little different every year, depending on volunteers and donations. The past few years, the Campbells have set up tables with items to give away and breakfast options—juice, hot chocolate, coffee, fruit, and homemade breakfast burritos. In their biggest year, they produced around four hundred burritos and assembled three hundred care packages. It takes about four hours to distribute everything—and they don’t leave until everything is gone, including blankets in the car that kept the little kids warm and, one year, the socks off of their feet.
The bulk of the work for the outreach happens in the weeks and months before Christmas Eve. Claudia begins collecting donations from stores, churches, friends, and neighbors as early as October. She’s on the hunt for blankets, trail mix, mittens, coats, water bottles, wipes, and other items people living on the streets in the cold need. She also takes whatever people donate.
One year, one of their neighbors showed up toting wrapping paper and toys for the homeless to pick out a gift for their children or grandchildren—a huge hit. One man stood out as an especially grateful recipient. He had dirty-blond hair, tattoos down his arms, and tear tattoos on his cheek. For the past three Christmases, he’d arrived empty-handed when he went to see his kids, who live with their mom. He was so grateful to finally bring presents. He couldn’t stop “crying and hugging everybody.”
“You get all kinds of people out there,” Dwayne says. “Sometimes, people point to the skyscrapers in Austin and tell you they used to work there. You say, ‘How did this happen?’ As they tell their stories, you begin to become very grateful for all you have. It keeps us very humble because that could be us. It’s just by the grace of God that it’s not us.”
Spirit of Giving
The giveaway leaves the Campbells exhausted by the time they make it home to open their own presents. But it’s worth it to impart a spirit of giving to their kids. Dwayne hopes that when his children grow up, they’ll want to start their own tradition of giving with their families. “It doesn’t need to be on Christmas Eve or even feeding the homeless. Just reaching down deep and finding what they want to give. I want them to receive a spirit of giving,” he says.
They already have. Sade, the oldest, recently went on mission trip overseas during which she aided girls her age who live in squatter villages with their young children. Dwayne Jr., fifteen, gave brand-new Vans shoes to a girl in school who “needed them more than” he did. Giving keeps Dwayne Jr. and Sade grateful because they realize how much they have that others don’t. They look forward to Christmas Eve because they experience a joy that they don’t get anywhere else.
The Campbell children are not the only ones receiving the spirit of giving from Claudia and Dwayne. One Christmas Eve, the Campbells met a couple in their early twenties who had become homeless that day. They’d recently lost their jobs and housing in Houston and traveled up to Austin to stay with a grandparent, but she was gone and her house was locked. They were scared and unsure if they could rough it in the streets.
Several of the adults with the Campbells gathered what blankets remained, gave them to the couple, and prayed for them. A man passing by overheard and offered for his church to put them up in a hotel for a few nights. The couple was so grateful that they gave the blankets to another homeless woman.
“She didn’t have anything but what we had just given her, yet she freely gave what she had just been given,” Claudia says. “I think it really blessed her to give, too, because it was Christmas.”
“The key to giving is not to hold too tightly to what we’ve been given,” Dwayne says. “One of our old pastors told us, ‘When you’re down and out, you give your way out.’ If you give, it will come back to you.”
If you would like more information about or to donate to the Campbell’s Christmas Eve Outreach, e-mail Claudia.
Six Tips for Serving the Homeless
1. Food for the soul. “It’s more important to show people that you care than just to hand them food,” Claudia says. One year, Claudia included Christmas cards with a dollar and stick of gum in their care packages with the simple phrase, “Someone cares.” Dwayne suggests taking a few minutes to ask people their stories. “They want to tell you how they got there,” he says.
2. Food for the body. Pack soft foods, such as crackers, easy-open ready-made soups and pastas, fruit cups, or soft cereals, and include plastic utensils. “Some homeless people don’t have good teeth,” Claudia advises. Water is always needed.
3. Safety and discretion. “Go with someone who has gone before,” Dwayne says. “Some of these people are on drugs and desperate. You’ve just got to know that.” The Campbells don’t go out alone or at night and require parents to accompany children. “I’m not going to say it’s a bad environment for kids, but you have to use discretion.”
4. Clothes and hygiene. T-shirts and socks are always in demand; go with dark colors to hide dirt. In her care packages, Claudia includes hair ties, tooth brushes, wipes, cotton swabs, feminine products, etc.
5. Weather-related necessities. In summer, give out mosquito spray and sunscreen. In winter, offer coats, blankets, scarves, mittens, and beanies.
6. Backpacks and towels. Many homeless children need backpacks for school, and many adults appreciate something to carry their stuff. A towel is versatile—to dry off after a shower at a shelter, keep warm, or even roll up for a pillow.