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Posted at 9:03 AM ET, 12/21/2010

The Bloggess and the Christmas Gift Card Miracle of 2010*

By Melissa Bell
Jenny Lawson
Jenny Lawson a.k.a. The Bloggess

Sheri Carpenter braced her three children: They'd receive no gifts this Christmas. With a disabled husband who couldn't work and only part-time work available for her, the recession hit the Tennessee family hard. "It's all I can do to keep everyone warm and in the house," Carpenter said. She'd just given up celebrating the holiday when a friend pointed her to a blog posting.

"If you're struggling for money right now and don't know how you'll give your kids presents," the post read, "I'll email a $30 Amazon gift card to the first twenty people who leave a comment explaining why it would make a difference in their lives right now."

The post was written by Jenny Lawson, a Texas writer whose hilarious, rambling, stream-of-conscious musings on are usually about killing zombies, her giant taxidermy boar head and hiding in bathrooms drinking bottles of wine during parties. Her irreverent humor has garnered a fierce readership of 10,000 daily readers. Last Wednesday, Lawson warned them: "I'm about to ruin your image of me but it's for a good cause."

She offered 20 gift cards for readers in need. "I thought maybe 25 people would write in and I would somehow scrap together enough money to pay off the next five, and then it would end," she said in a phone interview. But what happened instead caught her off guard: Readers asked if they could donate gift cards, too. Within two days, nearly 500 comments had been posted, both from people asking for help and others offering to help. "It happened in this completely unplanned, organic way," Lawson said. "The whole thing has just been overwhelming."

Lawson created a spreadsheet with donors in one column and people in need in the next. She matched them up, and donors could buy gift cards and send them directly to the people in need via e-mail.

Carpenter was one of those asking for help. "I just don't have the money to shop for my kids this year," she wrote. "I am trying to figure out how to answer the questions on Christmas morning as I know my youngest is not going to understand why he doesn't have anything from Santa. It is heart breaking."

A few days later, a woman wrote Carpenter offering to make jewelry for her daughter and two other people sent Carpenter gift cards. "You don't think that people want to help people like you," Carpenter said, her voice catching up with tears. "When you been down so much where you're at, you tend to lose hope. I'm just grateful."

What started off as 20 $30 gift cards to Amazon turned into $40,000 in donated gifts, all between strangers, all paired up on Lawson's spreadsheet. One donor wound up paying someone's rent for the month. A doll-store owner sent off seven dolls to seven little girls in need. A man donated $1,000 for 10 different PayPal accounts, giving strangers $100 each.

Reading the comments is like watching a ticker tape equivalent to the end of "It's a Wonderful Life," with the whole town coming out to pay off George Bailey's debt.

The heartbreaking posts come first:

"I never thought I'd be in a position to not be able to buy my son something for Christmas. Unfortunately, here we are, with my husband looking for steady work, my salary frozen, and a voicemail box that's filled to the brim with messages from bill collectors. So, I'm making as many things as I can for him, and I'm considering wrapping up some toys he's forgotten about and re-giving them to him."

"My own husband has been without work for nearly two years but we're doing all right. My daughter's husband lost his job just after their third baby was born, 3 months ago. They are living with us, so they do have a roof over their heads, but there is no money for gifts."

"My husband was killed by a drunk driver in July and since he was the primary income earner things have been very tough. I have twin girls that are 5 years old and this is just the worst time of year to be poor and to be missing the love of your life at the same time. I wish I could just crawl in bed and sleep through Christmas but my girls deserve more."

But then come the offers of help: "I think I saw the 21st gift card offered - I can give the 22nd. Please let me know the person's email address and I will email it to them."

"I can give a $30 gift card and I would love to! Match me up with someone or let me know what to do. I'm sobbing my eyes out over here reading everyone's comments, and I just wish I could give more!"

"I'd love to help out three more of your readers with their holidays by sending them an Amazon gift card. Just tell me who and I'm on it."

Samantha June initially offered up a $30 gift card to a single mother of two, but quickly changed that amount to $100. Then "as I wrote to her," June said, "I thought of my own childhood and how much my single mother did without so that I could have my youth. I found my fingers typing $250 instead of the original promise of $100."

She ended up writing back to Lawson and asked to be set up with a second family in need.

Lawson thinks that the donations came about in an unusual fashion partly because it was the intimacy of blogging that encouraged people. When "you're giving to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, it's this faceless organization. You don't know how your money is going to get there or where it will go." But on her blog readers could immediately see a need and move to help answer it.

The giving became as much of a gift as the receiving, donors said. "Reading all of those posts about people struggling, unable to provide just the basic essentials much less gifts for their own children," wrote Kimberly Allen. "It made me feel so blessed to have the things I do have. I didn't have a lot to give, but I was so inspired that I put up two of my own Christmas gifts... The simple yet intrinsically rewarding gesture has made my Christmas all the more shiny and bright."

Lawson worked through the weekend, sending off e-mails and matching donors with recipients. On Sunday she blogged that she hadn't slept the entire weekend and would close down donations on Monday so she could focus on her own family's Christmas. But she's already getting requests to do it again next Christmas -- mainly from the people who have received help this year. "They want to pay it forward," Lawson said. She wrote an update on Monday night saying, "Some small miracles happened here in the past five days and I don't know exactly how I fell into being involved but I'm so glad I did... It was just a series of small gifts sent one by one to perfect strangers in need. It doesn't change the world. Or maybe it does. Thank you for changing mine."

(*Thanks to Squidmom for the title!)

This post has been updated.

By Melissa Bell  | December 21, 2010; 9:03 AM ET
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This was a lot of fun to be a part of. Jenny is the best!

Posted by: jewelrysprout | December 20, 2010 9:34 PM | Report abuse

I'm so happy to have gotten a chance to help a family in need directly -- and since there were two kids, I decided to double my donation.

I've been in rough financial situations before, when my daughter was very young, and I feel really fortunate to be in a better place now. It's wonderful to be able to pay forward some of the generosity I was shown in the past.

Many thanks to Jenny for starting this avalanche of generosity! :D

Posted by: seven_jaguar | December 20, 2010 10:00 PM | Report abuse

What a blessing to the world you all are. This article made me recall a xmas many yrs ago when I was working 3 jobs to support my sons and had nothing under the tree. On xmas eve morning there was a bag of age appropriate toys at our doorstep. No note..a huge ham..and an envelope w/ a 20 in it for me for gas in the car to get to work! I really felt there was a Santa..more importantly it reminded me to truly remember the 'real' meaning of Christmas. Since that time my career has been working with abused women, men and children and the homeless. Please remember this year to pass on your good feels amazing..give of yourself if you can't give $..Merry Christmas!

Posted by: ziziinfl | December 21, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

It took only one simple comment to receive help, one simple comment to donate. No strings attached, no email spam. It was the most heartwarming, altruistic project I've participated in in a very long time. Thanks, Melissa, for covering it, and thanks to Jenny for letting me donate.

Posted by: EricaHM | December 21, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Jenny is amazing. Reading her post inspired me to give up my measly holiday "bonus" from work (2 $10 Walmart gift cards) to two of my blog readers who were in need this year. My contribution was small, but my hope is that it really DID make a difference for someone. Thanks to Jenny for being so damn inspiring.

Posted by: KatieTalksAbout | December 21, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for this, Melissa. I'd hoped word about Jenny Lawson's unintentional and amazing phenomenon would find its way beyond her blog's borders and with your piece it has bigger wings. The entire experience has been so "outlier on the bell curve", so inspiring, restorative and humbling, words fail. One takeaway lesson (re-minder) out of many for me: the internal weather variance(s) experienced when giving from a place of desire versus that of expectation. Holidays too often fall into the second category. And why I'll always have a job. Thanks again.

Posted by: the_psycho_therapist | December 21, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the touching story. For those of us less fortunate I came across some lows cost and even free last minute great gifts -- Obama Chia, SodaStream Home Soda Maker, Amazon Kindle and other latest electronics gadgets … even some FREE Stuff at . One Stop Shop Best Deals While Listening to Best Music...Xmas or other -Amazon,Bestbuy, Walmart, Macys+

Posted by: burtkauf | December 23, 2010 4:05 AM | Report abuse

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