It’s been nearly three years since Sandi and Owen Carlson lost their daughter, Nicci, in a tragedy that can only be described as unthinkable; their daughter, who was in her twenties, suffered carbon monoxide poisoning in her Austin apartment.
Nicci always wanted to do good deeds for others, and especially when the typical blistering weather turned cold. Before her death, she talked about a blanket drive that would “cover the cold.” Since her passing, her parents have collected blankets for distribution throughout the state in honor of their late daughter’s memory.
"It still just blows my mind the way people give,” Sandi said nearly in tears. “It's amazing. She's still touching lives."
The couple traveled to San Antonio with the help of a friend, Maurice Johnson. Together, the trio hauls a covered trailer to places where blankets are donated by giving spirits. On this day, the Carlsons and volunteers gather 600 blankets. Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland got in the giving spirit; 300 of the blankets, comforters and quilts came from Airmen who graduated from technical training school.
"They usually dispose of the blankets,” said Sgt. Nicolas Esparza, who organized the giveaway. “They don't really take them with them."
Another 300 came from a charity flag football game, the Turkey Bowl.
Soldiers from the base helped load them into the Carlson’s trailer in an assembly line so they can take them to people who need them. Just before leaving the base, Sandi explained to the soldiers how much their donation means to the mission.
"She [Nicci] always said ‘Hootie Hoo,’” said Sandi. “It was her hello, goodbye, how are ya? She just always said ‘Hootie Hoo.’ So we kind of took everything that she said and put it on this shirt. And the hope for brighter tomorrows is another thing she said.”
That’s when Sandi's words became muffled under the visible pain she carries to this day from the enormous loss of her daughter. She told the soldiers that talk of a brighter tomorrow was the last time she would ever speak to Nicci.
"Anyway," said Sandi as she regained her composure. "She said, ‘Mom, tomorrow we're going to get tattoos and she said and I'm going to put a cross right here and I'm going to hope for brighter tomorrows. And it took me probably about a year to realize that that next day was the brightest day of her life."
The blankets are just one way the Carlsons are turning grief into something good. They hope to send children to camp and donate to the March of Dimes, charities close to their hearts. But covering the cold will always be the mission that helps them feel the closest to Nicci.
They are collecting blankets for folks all over Texas and giving them to places like San Antonio's Christian Senior Services, which runs Meals on Wheels.
"There's a high need, not only for the meals, but just for other necessities in life,” said Jerry Arellano of the blessing in disguise.
Closing the trailer, the Carlsons are back on the road for Nicci, doing what she would have wanted.
"I don't know how to explain it,” Sandi said. “I don't. It's just; it's just what we were meant to do. It's a tragedy. It's a tragedy to lose your child. And so just taking a very negative situation and turning it into something so awesome - because when we're there, she's there. I can literally feel her bouncing all around us. And if you just knew her, I mean she is up there thinking, ‘Lookie here what I did.’ That's what I think. I think she's definitely saying, Hootie Hoo. I really do."
The Carlsons will distribute more blankets in Austin on Thanksgiving Day. It will be their third official distribution. The family will also deliver blankets to those in need in Waco, Dallas, Ft. Worth, and soon, Lubbock. Owen says they hope to be a regular part of many more communities as their mission grows.