Before starting the Children's Park of Tyler, it was hard for Jennifer Carson to sell a candy bar.
Asking people for large donations to fund the park, created in memory of her late son, was not her idea of fun.
A man who gave her a large donation early on helped make it easier for her. He told her that when he entered heaven, he would be asked what he did with what God gave him. He told Mrs. Carson she was helping him with that question.
Mrs. Carson, 46, realized it wasn't about asking for money; it was presenting an opportunity to someone and leaving it up to them whether they chose to be a part of it, she said. Whether they say yes or no, she keeps moving along, she added.
Mrs. Carson and her husband of 22 years, Billy Dan, have a son, Ancel, 16, and daughter, Hope, 13. The death of her middle son, Braden, who died at birth and would now be 15, led her to start the Children's Park of Tyler in 2001. After learning about a similar park in Dallas, she felt opening one here became her calling.
"It was just putting one foot in front of the other," she said.
Once the park was completed, it was given to the city in 2004 to keep up its weekly maintenance and assume liabilities. Through the Children are a Gift Foundation, a nonprofit Mrs. Carson started, they continue the fundraising.
"The whole meaning of the park is to celebrate the life of children," Mrs. Carson said. It is also a place of healing for those who have lost a child, she added.
Each year, they hold a Day of Remembrance celebration, a roll call of more than 100 kids who have died. It is attended by about 350 people and is a time to remember and celebrate those lives that were lost.
"Sometimes when I go there, I'm blown away to even be a part of it," Mrs. Carson said of what the park has become. She is working to expand it, renovating a house on the property that can be used for meetings or events, as well as a larger lawn area for groups and a prayer/meditation garden.
"I have learned so many different things through this process," she said of building the park and starting the nonprofits. She said it has been cool getting to know so many city leaders and what a great community Tyler is.
At the park, Mrs. Carson also holds a monthly support group, Glory Babies, for those grieving over a lost child. They meet the third Tuesday of every month.
She has published a book, "Letters to My Glory Baby," a compilation of seven years worth of letters she wrote to Braden. It allows others to see into someone else's "grief journey" while giving encouragement to others going through what she has, she said. Mrs. Carson also leads the prayer ministry at Grace Community School, facilitates a weekly Bible study and teaches Sunday school with her daughter.
When she's not volunteering, she works part-time as a physical therapist in home health. Mrs. Carson was born in England and moved to Dallas when she was 7. She earned a bachelor's degree from Texas A&M University and a master's degree in physical therapy from Texas Women's University in Dallas. She has been a physical therapist for 22 years and has lived in Tyler for 15 years.
When she's not working or volunteering, Mrs. Carson likes walking, canoeing, riding four wheelers, camping and being outside. She also likes taking photographs and scrapbooking.
In March, Mrs. Carson was one of six "Women Who Care" honored at the 16th annual Women in Tyler luncheon. She said she was shocked to learn that out of all the women in Tyler, she was one of six to be honored this year.
"God has given me the gift of mercy and encouragement," she said. The honor is "such an affirmation from Him that I'm where He wants me to be, doing what He wants me to do."
The other Women in Tyler honorees were Beverly Beavers Brooks, Jean Coleman, Verna Hall, Irma Rodriguez and Rebecca Taylor.
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