This year had been a whirlwind of emotions . . . As I stood watching my oldest son graduate from high school, tears streaming down my face, I recalled every moment of triumph and every second of heartache it took to parent him successfully to that milestone. Then, as we spent the summer getting him ready to serve a two-year full-time mission to teach people about Christ, I recall being so torn between the joy that comes from a child who wants to serve others selflessly, and the sorrow of having to let him go in order to do so. Fast forward to the week before he is scheduled to leave and we received the unexpected news that my husband had been let go from his job. Meanwhile, I sidelined my successful career as a Nurse Practitioner to follow my dream of opening an interior design firm. Throughout it all, I have certainly had moments of uncertainty, despair, and resentment abound . . . but, somehow, deep down, I knew it would all be ok.

I have since received a few letters and telephone calls from my son while serving the people of Brazil, and I marvel at the invaluable and almost palpable change of heart he is experiencing as he immerses his energy in serving others. So, for this holiday season, I choose to reflect back on all of the challenges 2019 presented, and in an act of gratitude, give back to someone in my community. I wanted to see if my heart could undergo a change as mighty as what I saw in my son, if I just challenged myself to replicate some of that selflessness.

The Joy Tree Project started as a small idea. My design firm had had a such an unexpectedly successful year that I proposed to gather stories of those in need within my community so that I could gift one professionally decorated Christmas tree to a family who otherwise would not have one. As I posted the idea on social media channels, my inbox began to flood with requests for people and families of all walks of life, and with various short and long-term challenges. This was when I realized my first dilemma: how was I to judge whose trials were “worse” than another’s? Unexpectedly, this project had begun to teach me something I wasn’t expecting: in giving to others, judgement has no place. So, after nights and nights of sleeping on the issue, I decided to give the tree to the story that just remained most deeply etched in my mind. After wrangling up supplies, donations, and my own family, we headed out to decorate.

As we pulled up to the house and walked inside, I heard one of my kids immediately murmur that their house was nicer than our own! As I quickly surveyed the home, I would even silently agree. But, in this moment I realized this lesson was repeating itself because I had not yet taught it to my children: giving to those in need doesn’t always look like you think it should. Even when you have cast out your own judgement in the decision to give, it can be universal to unconsciously expect to serve those who outwardly looked hardened by life’s trials and challenges. It didn’t make our service any less valuable if it was going to people who didn’t look as if they needed it; but, somehow, we often expect that physical barometer to be present in order to validate our service.

I can attest that the spirit felt in the room once the tree was finished, and this family (who had been through so many horrific medical trials the past few years) walked into see it, was nothing short of life-changing. The gratitude in their hearts was full of humility and pure joy, and the gift we left undoubtedly planted hope for brighter days and a New Year. So, although I may not have stopped while passing them on the street and noticed their distress, I am surely glad that I listened to that mother’s plea to serve her family when they needed it most. Sometimes, service results in more than a mighty change of heart . . . sometimes service also reshapes the way in which we look upon each other.