For most of 2008, Shawana Carter, her husband and three of her four children lived together in a motel.
When it was time to start school, they didn’t have enough money to buy uniforms, and the school assistance program couldn’t help because Carter’s eighth grader was already wearing adult sizes.
Today, Carter is the founder and executive director of Carter’s House, a South Dallas-based nonprofit that provides free new clothing, shoes and parenting resources to families in need. Since its start in 2013, Carter’s House has helped thousands of clients.
Her willingness to adapt is one of the reasons Carter’s House kept going when the pandemic hit.
It’s also why actor and Texas native Matthew McConaughey surprised Carter with a video chat. McConaughey is the creative director for Wild Turkey, a bourbon company, and each year they host a “With Thanks” campaign to recognize “local legends” who serve their communities.
The Dallas Buyers Club actor called Carter a “rock star” at a virtual news conference on Monday.
“She was doing this long before we shone a light on her,” McConaughey said. “She’s a baller.”
Last year, the campaign provided 800 turkeys to Los Angeles first responders who worked through wildfires. In 2018, they traveled to Houston to thank first responders who participated in Hurricane Harvey relief.
Along with Carter, McConaughey selected three other honorees from Austin, Chicago and New Orleans after sifting through hundreds of nominees sent by each city’s mayoral offices.
Carter’s House operates out of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center on the boulevard that shares its name.
In its early stages, Carter solicited donations from her Facebook friends and kept them in her living room — or wherever they’d fit.
“In about two weeks’ time … we couldn’t even sit on the couch anymore,” Carter said. “I had to go get a storage unit at that point because everything was so ridiculously full. My coat closet became like that closet you see in the cartoons where you open it and everything falls out on your head.”
In March, Carter’s House hit a speedbump when the pandemic caused the city-owned MLK Center to shut down. Carter and her team also weren’t sure whether the virus lived on clothing at the time, so they halted their normal services.
The pause didn’t last long. Carter’s House partnered with ilooklikeLove, a nonprofit organization that operates a mobile diaper distribution service for parents in need. Volunteers also donated baby wipes, baby food, and other necessities to families in Irving, southern and West Dallas.
By late summer, the MLK Center was still closed, but Carter’s House resumed its clothing distribution.
The Park South Family YMCA — which has provided the nonprofit storage in the basement for years — offered an upstairs office space to Carter. Now, she and two interns serve clients by appointment only to practice social distancing.
“It feels a little different because we’re limited as far as space, and [clients] don’t get that personal touch,” Carter said.
Though the nonprofit’s back-to-school event, normally the biggest of the year, was canceled this year, Carter’s House found a way to provide for the community.
Since the temporary relocation to the YMCA, Foot Locker sent a donation to the organization, which inspired a “Blue Jeans and Sneakers Giveaway” to about 450 children.
Even with the work she’s done, Carter is already looking ahead. She’s talking with volunteers and community partners to figure out if they can host a back-to-school event in January.
“I don’t feel like we’re at the end of COVID,” she said. “So we need to be prepared for what that looks like.”
When McConaughey called Carter a few weeks ago, she said it felt good to know she was doing something right. But her favorite part is “getting to see the smiles” of her clients.
“We’ve got some customers that come to us repeatedly,” Carter said.
“When they stop coming, we get to reach out … and realize that they don’t need us because they’ve gotten a job or they’re not in a shelter anymore.
“That’s the best part of doing this work.”
After chatting for a few minutes, McConaughey asked Carter if there was anything she’d like to do that she hasn’t had time for because of her workload.
Carter said she’d love to take her two daughters on a trip.
“They’ve never been to a real beach because mama works so much,” she told him.
He said: “We’re giving you that trip.”
McConaughey assured her that once the coronavirus pandemic ends, he and the Wild Turkey team would send Carter and her family to Mexico to enjoy the beach and time with each other.
With teary eyes and a big smile, Carter thanked him.
“You’re too much,” she told McConaughey.