Each year, American Profile asks readers to share stories of good deeds that lead to inspirational and even transformational moments in peoples lives. This year, we spotlight an Arizona family that turned a simple Christmas request into a holiday tradition of giving across four generations.
The year was 2002 in Kingman, Ariz. (pop. 20,069), and Frank and Joan Gordon had just celebrated yet another bountiful Christmas Day with their children and grandchildren. Boxes, bows and hastily torn wrapping paper littered the living room of daughter Candy Lander's home, and the family chatted around the dining room table after devouring a hearty turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
The talk turned to next year's Christmas plans and, before everyone could scatter for another year, the family patriarch and matriarch offered a quick but heartfelt announcement.
"We told them that next year we want to do Christmas a little differently," recalls Joan, 79. "We told them that we've lived enough years so that we have more things than we can use. So, next Christmas, instead of spending money on a gift for us, we asked them to spend that amount on someone else, or to do something to help someone else in some way."
"But we also told them that we want a report back next Christmas. We want to know what it is they've done for someone else—because that is going to be our Christmas gift from them."
Granddaughter Elisha Blickenstaff was in her early 20s at the time and remembers everybody being a little bummed out when her grandparents requested no more presents. However, when they asked for good deeds instead, the mood changed. "I thought it was very cool because you can have so many possessions, but it's a little different when you're thinking, 'What can I do to better someone else's life for Christmas?'"
A tradition takes root
A year later, the family gathered again at the Lander home and, one by one, each member shared their act of kindness bestowed in the spirit of Christmas.
Candy and her husband, Scott, talked about providing recreational activities for economically disadvantaged kids through a Christian teen center in Kingman. Candy's brother, Trey Gordon, and his wife, Ruth, shared how they sponsored kids who couldnt afford lessons, outfits or coaching at a local family-run gymnastics program. Joan's brother, Ken Gipe, talked about reading books aloud to residents of a nursing home in Las Vegas. Candy's son, Scott, and his wife, Jamie, described taking a homeless man to a restaurant for breakfast, and a misty-eyed Elisha shared how she and co-workers at a Starbucks coffee shop in Las Vegas had adopted for Christmas a family whose mother was stricken with brain cancer and father was laid off from work.
"I'll never forget the day when we brought a little Christmas tree to this family's house and decorated it and bought all sorts of gift certificates to help," recalls Elisha, now 26. "When we gave it to this woman, she fell on her knees weeping. They didn't have much to give their kids. She was so blown away. That was the most touching thing I had seen in a really long time."
Today, doing a good deed for Christmas has become a treasured family tradition in the extended Gordon family, which now includes Frank and Joan, their two children, three grandchildren and respective spouses, Joan's brother, four great-grandchildren and one baby, due in March. And sharing their stories with each other at Christmas has become the highlight of their annual holiday gathering in northwest Arizona.
"It's more fun than giving a lot of unwanted gifts," says Frank, 79. "Everyone looks forward to it."
The gift-giving rules are simple: "It has to be done within the year, and it can be either monetary or giving of your time or energy in some way," Candy says. "We have a whole year to come up with something, and then we have to come back and tell everyone else what we've done."
The first year, everyone just went around the room and described their good deed. But after that, Frank and Joan asked for the deeds in writing as well, so they could keep a record of the family's Christmas gifts. The notes are kept in a family scrapbook.
"When I see how happy all the family is in preparing their little note and what deed they're claiming that day, it's kind of fun just to sit back and watch," says Candy, 52. "I know my parents enjoy it more than any present we could give them."
Continuing the tradition, this year Trey Gordon's daughter, Brandee Proffit, 33, and her husband Pete, 37, delivered Christmas gifts to children of residents of Angel Manor, a transitional housing and recovery program in Kingman for women addicted to alcohol or drugs.
The recipients of the gifts—Skyler Whalen, 15; Jessica Baca, 10; Travis Vogel, 5; and Randy Thomas Elliott, 2—were surprised, and their mothers were moved by the act of kindness. "We were all pretty emotional," says Dustin Whalen, 39, the mother of Skyler and Travis. "It's a blessing to have people who care so much."
A philosophy of giving
Frank and Joan always have emphasized charity, community service and giving back to others, according to Candy. "It wasn't shouted from the rooftop, but it was quietly taught," she says.
Retired as chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court in 1992, Frank actively encouraged lawyers in Arizona to participate in a program that provided free legal advice to people who couldn't afford it. During his tenure, he required felons to learn to read and write in prison. And he still actively supports a United Methodist homeless shelter in Phoenix, along with numerous other charities.
"I started out as a lawyer in Kingman, where my father had also been a lawyer," says Frank, who now calls Phoenix home. "My father always emphasized that you've got to give back to the community. He said you owe it to the community because people there have done so much for you in a lot of ways that you don't even realize."
He and Joan passed along this philosophy to their own children.
"We were brought up to help others, so this wasn't a new concept," Candy says. "But I think my parents hoped that changing the way we do Christmas would continue that tradition down the line. I think they hoped that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and even their friends, would catch the spirit."
The tradition has been passed on to friends of the family who now ask their own children to perform charitable acts. "I think it's spreading," Joan says.
Gifts of love
Over the years, the Gordon family's good deeds have included teaching English to recently arrived refugees and training a therapy dog to work with people with Alzheimers disease or brain injuries. Family members also have helped a young mother make a budget, bought a pair of tennis shoes for a teenager in need, filled the gas tank and paid the light bill of a poor, disabled woman, supported a teenage girl in Brazil through a Christian ministry, provided a job to a woman undergoing drug rehabilitation and donated backpacks filled with school supplies to children in underserved neighborhoods.
"Most of my family does far more than one kind deed a year," Candy says. "We only record the ones that we want to share at Christmas. But there are many needs in the world, and Christmas is another opportunity."
Her brother feels the same way. "I hope the spirit catches," says Trey, 59. "If more people tried this, I suppose the stores wouldn't like it. But it definitely makes for a more Jesus-centered Christmas."