After Project Merry Christmas disbanded in 2020, Shera Johnson realized something critical in the community had been lost. With the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic raging, it seemed a tragedy to her that yet another community tie had been severed.
“People were isolated, people didn’t have any support systems,” Johnson said. “All of a sudden, people were afraid of one another. Instead of being humans, they were more like disease vectors, which was so dehumanizing and so terrible. People were dying alone in hospitals and I just felt like, gosh, at least at Christmas couldn’t we do something that could help people not feel so alone?”
So Johnson decided to do just that.
She founded the Project Durango Christmas group on Facebook in November 2020 to connect families in need of Christmas presents for their children with community members and businesses in the area who are able to sponsor them. Today, the group is 1,300 members strong.
The premise is simple: Community members can post a request for sponsorship with a few details about their children, and others can volunteer to sponsor that family in the comments section below the post.
Johnson said a desire to facilitate community connections lies at the core of the group. She does relatively little policing, and trusts that those requesting help are in need. Most importantly, she asks potential donors to avoid passing judgment on others.
“I'm not looking at these people (asking), ‘Are these people on my side politically, are these people deserving based on their lifestyle choices’ – all of a sudden I can shed all of that judgment and just be a service,” she said. “The people that are being vulnerable enough to ask for help, not only are they receiving, but the people that are able to be of service are also receiving. Finally, I can just get out of this small little hard heartedness that I tend to fall into sometimes and just see the bigger picture.”
The only requirement for sponsorship is that “nominees” provide proof that they live in the area and are available for an in-person exchange. Johnson individually approves each post to ensure this rule is followed.
Project Durango Christmas is not explicitly a mutual aid network. Such networks proliferated the country as the pandemic brought economic inequality into high relief and exacerbated existing wealth stratification. They are predicated upon the fundamental beliefs that everyday people have both unmet needs and something to offer, that existing support structures often address the effects but not the causes of inequality, and that it is an act of solidarity for communities to address material needs via direct organizing and action.
Although they are not written into the group’s mission, these ideas still percolate throughout the Project Durango Christmas group.
Project Merry Christmas was a nonprofit run by a board of volunteers. It collapsed in early 2020 under the weight of its own success.
Richard Carpenter, a longtime donor of the nonprofit and participant in Project Durango Christmas, said the nature of the nonprofit’s function meant that participants felt the layer of bureaucracy. The Facebook group makes him feel more connected to the community, and as a result, he has increased his participation since the group took over the nonprofit’s role in the community.
Johnson stresses that Project Durango Christmas is not about virtue signaling. Sponsors who complain to her privately that they did not receive public kudos have missed the point.
For Carpenter, it seems the experience has absolutely nothing to do with congratulatory recognition. He will sponsor three families this year including one who privately reached out to him after he sponsored them last year. He estimates he has spent $2,000 to $3,000 each year buying presents for families.
When asked about the experience of meeting those he sponsors, Carpenter extolled the experience of forming community connections in the face of an isolating pandemic.
“I like it,” he said without romanticizing in the slightest. “Over the last two years, we’ve had less interpersonal connection than usual, in some ways, just because of COVID and everything. And so I feel like getting a little bit more of that from time to time is absolutely a good thing.”
April Fry said she relied on Project Merry Christmas to provide presents for her two young children, now ages 8 and 13, and has been a part of Project Durango Christmas since the nonprofit shuttered. Although she hoped to be in a financial position to sponsor a family this year, Fry said she was again relying on the group to put presents under the tree.
Still, Fry is offering what she can – in this case, her time. She said she would watch other families’ children, go grocery shopping, clean someone’s house or otherwise work to help her community using whatever resources she has.
“Anytime, whether it’s Christmas or not, I will always help,” Fry said. “It’s not because you want anything in return but because you know the meaning, the joy of people helping people – it’s how we get through life.”
Johnson said she has struggled with finding a balance between ensuring stated needs are met and passing judgment on the apparent needs of people she does not know. She errs on the side of believing those who vocalize a need.
“I’ve had people private message me telling me about potential scams and families that don’t deserve help this Christmas,” she posted to the group in 2020. “And while I am sure that happens ... I am unwilling to allow that to keep these blessings from happening for others. And even for them. If they are going out of their way to double post or what not ... they obviously need it more than we understand.”
The group successfully matched every sponsorship request with a sponsor in 2020 and 2021, but Johnson said it still needs sponsors this year, particularly for larger families.
And while there are a multitude of reasons to participate, Carpenter put it in succinct terms.
“Personally, it just seems like the right thing to do,” he said.