For 26 years, The Community Spirit Christmas Dinner, held in Victoria, British Columbia, has been a compassionate, loving and joyous Christmas event. Here’s the story of the woman who created it.
by Mindy Sullivan
Christina Parkhurst loves people and loves Christmas. It was just a matter of time before the two collided into something magical, but it didn’t always look that way. During her early late teens and early 20s a confluence of several challenging personal experiences occurred and she was seeking ways to heal herself. Various family dynamics and upsets along the way had her seeking ways to be happy at a deeper level. She had suffered from anxiety, depression and a severe eating disorder since she was 10 years old that landed her in the hospital at 19 years old.
Soon after, at her grandmother’s funeral, she looked around and realized everyone there was there to honor her grandmother because she had lived a full life surrounded by people who loved her. Christina saw that she would never have that if she kept heading in the direction she was. Her probable, almost certain future was dramatic unfulfilling relationships, self hatred, and an early death. She was only 23.
This jolted her into action. She was determined to be someone who felt good mentally, physically and spiritually as well as learn how to be authentically self expressed. She was searching for the answer to “Who is Christina? How do I exist on the planet in a way that is loving and make a powerful difference for others and for myself?”
Enter a magical collision. At 25 years old, Parkhurst was going to university, working at a pub style restaurant, and winding up a business course (traveling to another city to complete it), when she was inspired to create a Christmas dinner for those in the community who may be alone or without sufficient means to have their own holiday dinner. With the help of the restaurant owners and several friends and family members she started The Christmas Spirit Community Dinner (CSCD) in 1991.
The first year they fed about 75 guests, primarily single mothers, their children and several homeless people. It was a great success. She says that no one really knew how to ‘event plan’, and she can’t remember very many meetings or conversations about how – it was just “Great! Let’s do this. Go!” Everyone just tore around and got their job done. It was pulled together out of a great love of Christmas traditions, fabulous food and a need for others to feel loved.
She forged a partnership with a news reporter at one of the local radio stations who went on to support the Christmas Spirit Community Dinner for the next 25 years with literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of air time both with live and recorded interviews, onsite fundraisers at large grocery stores and other super fun fundraisers for their Secret Santa program. The Dinner started in 1991 with not-for-profit status obtained in 2007 and full charity status in 2010. Although the event moved to a large church as numbers expanded – they regularly fed 700-900 guests each Christmas Day – they were non-denominational and welcomed all guests without discrimination. Their belief was that within that space, the lives of all who participated were transformed. This wasn’t just a Christmas dinner. This was a sacred space to share a lovely meal together.
Over the years, Christina raised her game. She led dozens of volunteer meetings (as well as fundraisers, silent auctions, dances etc) each year that started as early as August and rallied about 200 mighty elves and half a dozen team leaders to create the event with her. For most of the 25 years, she stayed in charge of media, networking, fundraising and organizing the children’s gifts.
She says that one of her key strengths was and still is attracting immensely talented, kindhearted people who kept expanding what was possible and the level of excellence that she wanted for her guests. The Dinner was also 100% community funded and started from scratch every year. Both private individuals and corporate sponsorship flooded in each year. It was Christina’s job to make sure enough funds were raised via herself and her fundraising team each and every year. Many of her mighty elves have volunteered for over 20 years, and many guests have come every year for 20 or more years.
She sought out some of the best chefs and caterers in town. By year 20 of the project, caterers were cooking 45 turkeys. Her Christmas hams were paid for by families who lived in Germany, Canada and the USA. Turkeys were all donated in the last 3 years by an Ontario businessman who had recently seen an article about the event. Yeardley Smith from the Simpsons also sponsored 25 children one year. For years, they consistently made front page news.
Christina also demanded only the best quality food and service for her guests and even had a specialty bratwurst made for the outdoor BBQ she started to help with the overflow in 2005. The dining hall was transformed and decorated on Christmas morning: huge Christmas trees, dozens of poinsettias, white linens and china on each table as well as a beautiful choir and pianist who played carols all day. She started a Secret Santa Program to make sure every child who registered received a great new gift from Santa. She and her mighty elves put together hundreds of Christmas hampers over the years and sponsored many families who were too embarrassed to attend.
After 2001 when Christina did her Landmark Forum, the CSCD also paid for the deposits and tuition for dozens of participants over the years. She also got a teen off the streets and gave his Mom (a Landmark Graduate) the tuition to pay for his Forum and his Advanced Course. Four other mighty elves and herself also sent a single Mom and her son on an amazing adventure to see a major league football game with a limo and hotel, autographed jersey, the Works.
She says her own children who are now 14 and 17 grew up at the dinner and their schools dove in and took it on as a team building event each year, and as a result she created the Secret Santa Sock Program for the school kids to get involved with. Each stocking was stuffed to the brim with goodies, coffee cards, small toiletries and a mandarin for each and every adult attending. Any leftovers were made into both care packages on the streets and delivered to the homeless shelter on Boxing Day.
Over the years, she would say that the dinner was sprinkled with thousands of miracles, not the least of which was that she healed. Not only had food become her friend, she realized the amazing and beautiful power it had to bring people of all walks of life together as a community and a family. She also grew up with the dinner. She learned to grow into a more loving, confident, empowered woman. She learned how to faceplant, make huge mistakes, apologize, recoup and keep going. She learned how to make lasting friendships. She learned how to complete a degree and start her own clinical practice as a Structural Bodywork Practitioner and life coach in 1998. She learned how to be a wife. She learned how to be a mother. She also learned how to survive a divorce and become a single parent. She learned how to forgive others and herself. She learned how to belly laugh. She learned how to love everyone regardless of their past. She stopped apologizing for loving out loud.
As year 26 of the dinner rolled around in 2016, Christina had registered in Landmark’s Self Expression and Leadership Program. It had been ruminating in the back of her mind to put the dinner on hold that year; she had literally altered her family’s experience of Christmas for 25 years and she thought it might be time to put the focus on her parents and her own children who had never had the experience of her being at home on Christmas Day, or very much for the weeks prior to Christmas for that matter. It was time to have a small family dinner at home.
That is when the calls started to flood in. Both volunteers, guests and even some businesses were distraught, and some were downright angry with her.
“Don’t worry!” she said. “After 16 years with Landmark education I didn’t take it personally. I was able to hear what was there for them and I got the immense contribution the Dinner has been to literally thousands of guests over the years not to mention hundreds of mighty elves; something that I had forgotten.”
So then what? She created a project called “50 Families adopting 50 Families”. She matched up as many singles and families who normally would be her dinner guests with mighty elves who still wanted to make a difference. Their mission was to connect over the holidays and create their own Christmas Dinner or experience together. That part of her project was successful but not as extraordinary as she had hoped. She forgot how it used to be for her and how being a participant in Landmark had transformed her embarrassment of her circumstances. It was difficult for people to admit that they were having a rough time financially – it was easier to do in the anonymity of a huge Christmas dinner, and much harder to do in the presence of one person or family.
Some beautiful dinners, gifts, hot chocolate, coffee dates and church time was shared by several families and mighty elves. Parkhurst loved hearing the feedback from both sides. Christina also saw what a huge problem isolation is. She originally wanted to target seniors in her project and had a lovely 90 year old gentlemen over to their Christmas Dinner and said it was so perfect having him there. Because isolation plays a key role in the downward spiral of happy and highly functioning societies she knew that getting people out and doing things together was important.
It was a great start. Now what? About that time the head of a parole office contacted her regarding some of their clients who were integrating back into the community. Some were older women and men, while some were individuals with families. Christina had worked with them in the year prior and both the administrator and herself were keen on creating some more miracles again this year. ‘Miracles on Our Streets’ began.
So with the help of her teens and two of her girlfriends – who normally go full tilt with her Dinner – and many mighty elves financially contributing $4,000 they began the process of putting together 14 stellar Christmas Hampers. The toughest part of the project was actually finding out what the folks wanted in their hampers. It took several conversations with the administration and their clients to find out. She discovered that they had been trained out of learning how to ask for what they wanted. They were told what they could and couldn’t have for years. They were supposed to be grateful for anything.
Christina was so saddened by this. They were told “Here’s the parameters of what you can want – and by the way, that’s practically nothing”. And that’s often what clients got this time of year; a box of Kraft Dinner and pasta sauce and maybe some socks. Not on my watch, said Christina. She wanted people everywhere – from whatever background – to understand that they are beautiful and alive and a treasure to the community.
After myriad attempts at getting a real list from her clients, so many of whom had been punished, belittled and abused, Christina finally compiled what they really wanted for Christmas. It was like the floodgates opened.
“It was so amazing. They wanted everything from fruit to salads to doodle art to hair products to blankets and pj’s to cans of food for their dogs. Both dog owners were so committed to their dogs and requested that they get looked after too…both saying ‘I would rather forgo an extra gift for me’. A few had serious dental issues (a rampant lower income phenomenon) and one was a diabetic.”
“Regardless, we scooped up the list and went for it. We filled them with the basics needs (t.p., shampoo, toothpaste etc) and then made sure that they got every item on their list. One wanted cowboy boot polish – done! For some we found items like super cozy bathrobes for the older gents and movie passes and coffee cards for everyone.
She also wrote all of them heartfelt Christmas cards with her kids and filled them with $50 grocery and restaurant gift certificates. She and her daughter stuffed the “Hampermobile” with 14 hampers and headed downtown to the Parole Office four days before Christmas. They barely fit in the car.
Parkhurst’s daughter said it was so fun. She wants to be a “bazillionaire” so that she can be a professional philanthropist. Every lower income and homeless person would have great teeth.
One of the best parts of the Hamper Project is the reaction of the Parole officers. They have been floored by what is being hauled out of the van into the hustle and bustle of a busy downtown street in the midst of last minute shopping mayhem. A few clients are there waiting and need someone to help them carry it home. All of the Parole Officers volunteer their own time to deliver each of their client’s hampers personally – often many miles away. They say that the reactions are priceless. Tears. The realization: “I matter.” And “It’s okay to ask for what I want. I might even get it!”
The last part of the project with extra funds she had raised was titled simply ‘Random Acts of Sneaky Kindness. She gave a micro loan to a single Mom who desperately needed to replace her car. She “snuck up” on people and bought them coffees or paid for the next person in line’s groceries by paying for a gift card that she left with the cashier. She would go about her day listening for what might make the difference and the holiday season is always filled with opportunity to do so. She sat and talked to homeless people and bought them lunch or gave them some money. She says “I don’t care what they do with the money, that’s their business not mine. I don’t want anyone telling me how and where to spend my money, why should they?”
She claims she could do this every day of her life. It brings out her little kid innocence and playfulness. There was a young woman in front of her who was obviously a university student by the conversation she was having with her friend. She was very tall and lovely like her own daughter. When there was a pause in the conversation Christina said “You really remind me of my daughter. I’d love to buy you a latte today. Would that be okay?” The woman just stared her dumbfounded and Christina said “Well you’re at University, probably trying really hard. I don’t know if anyone ever does anything for you. You probably could use a treat.” The young woman burst into tears and gave her a huge hug and said “You have no idea how good your timing is!” and proceeded to thank her 100 times. The barista was so moved by what she witnessed she bought Christina’s coffee for her. These random sneaky acts were sprinkled throughout her city in whatever ways felt right.
The possibility of Christina’s project was ‘love unleashed and joyful families’ – everything she loves and stands for. Christina says that it’s: “love in the form of a smile. Love in the form of not saying the next sh*tty thing cuz you know you’re right! Love in the form of a latte. Love in the form of a Christmas Hamper that rocks. Love in the form of a loan. Love in the form of saying No to one thing and saying Yes Yes Yes to another. It’s all Love Unleashed. And miracles emerge and blast into all our lives because of it.”
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