Mary Lee Browning and her family have created a special holiday event at the Memphis VA that has people coming from all over for a party like none other
By John Groth
Hundreds of adorned gifts were on tables, all waiting to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Christmas music, candy, trees and decorations and costumed volunteers filled the theater room of the Memphis Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Tennessee for a more than two-decade-old holiday event that has become a major seasonal highlight for veterans and staff alike. Held every December, the Browning Christmas is organized by Mary Lee Browning, who just wanted to help out other veterans with spinal-cord injury and disease (SCI/D) like her son, Tracy. Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) National Senior Vice President Ken Weas attended the 2017 event before driving back to Florida later that afternoon to see family. Over the past 17 years, Weas has attended the party six times, including each of the past three years.
“There’s 33 [PVA] chapters, and I’ve been to 30,” he says. “Nobody throws their Christmas party like this.”
Earlier in 2017, the now 69-year-old Browning wondered if this was her last go-round with the event. Arthritis in both her hips was taking its toll, and she had trouble moving around. Her husband, Robert, even suggested that this should be her last year. But doctors put her on medication, and although she didn’t like the side effects, her arthritis has lessened.
“I said, ‘Well, you know what, my arthritis might bother me some. But, you know, when you look around and you see people, my arthritis ain’t nothing compared to what other people have,’ ” Mary Lee says. “As long as I can get out and do it, I think I’m going to continue to do it until my people that donate quit donating, and then I’ll have to quit.”
Seeing The Need
Mary Lee wouldn’t have even started the party had it not been for her youngest son, Tracy. An Air Force veteran, 45-year-old Tracy was injured July 9, 1993, in Omaha, Neb., when he fell from an oak tree, landing on his head and sustaining a C5-6 quadriplegic injury. During rehabilitation, he learned about PVA, joined the Mid-South Chapter, became a member of the board and was the Mississippi liaison. One year, in the mid-1990s, Mary Lee, Robert and Tracy attended the PVA Mid-South Chapter’s annual Christmas supper. Each year, the board held the dinner for veterans and would take gifts to patients in the local VA spinal-cord injury (SCI) ward. However, Mary Lee believed that with her outgoing nature, ability to procure donations and drive to help other veterans with SCI/D, she could turn that event into something unique and special.
So, she asked if she could — and she did.
The first year, Mary Lee raised around $1,500 in donations and kept going. Now, just past two decades later, she’s increased that amount to between $3,000 and $3,500 in donations, which she sets aside in a checking account. Once Mary Lee receives enough donations, she starts hunting for the best bargains and large sale items. Then, it’s time to shop. She doesn’t hit just one store, either — there’s Lowe’s, Walmart, Tractor Supply Company and a few other stores, too. Mary Lee picks out all kinds of gifts: tool sets, clothing, a grill, a popcorn maker, vacuums, car accessories, a toaster oven, an AM/FM radio, children’s toys, sports equipment and so much more.
“I want the money to go as far as it can go,” says Mary Lee, who spent 30 years working as a bailiff in Montgomery County circuit court in Mississippi before retiring just over five years ago. “I could buy something for $30 instead of $10 or $15. But I’d be silly to pass that up.”
When they first started, they loaded down Tracy’s truck, packed Mary Lee’s SUV to the brim and had to make multiple trips. Gifts are now stored in Tracy’s enclosed trailer and driven to the hospital.
Going Once, Going Twice …
With a handful of volunteers, setup was a breeze. The trailer was unloaded, and gifts were displayed on four tables in front of the event room. Everyone could roll up and check out the gifts before the auction. Mid-South Chapter board members gave a short speech before participants headed to the dining hall for a Christmas lunch with all the fixings, including ham, potatoes, green beans, stuffing and more, along with apple pie and ice cream for dessert. Auction participants were given $150 in stacks of fake money printed from a computer. Each stack was marked with a different stamp. Participants could choose to spend the money however they wished, either by trying to bid on one big item or going after a bunch of smaller items.
It’s all run by volunteers. Tracy serves as the auctioneer. Other volunteers serve as helpers. Some dressed up like elves or in Christmas colors to deliver gifts to winners and then counted the money to make sure it was enough and each bill had the same stamp. PVA Mid-South Chapter Executive Director Sharon Mount takes photos and helps set up the event, and she has two longtime helpers — her daughter, Holljoy Biavati, and Biavati’s 19-year-old son, Levi Nerad II. It’s turned into a family tradition for them. Hollyjoy and Levi have volunteered since Levi was 8 years old. Participants had to stay alert to bid on the presents they wanted. Some yelled out. Others simply raised or waved their hands. A convection oven sold for $80. A toaster, chopper, hand-mixer and blender combo gift went for $50. Bidding wars even occurred. Two individuals tied at $150 for a smoker. So, Mary Lee decided to have a young girl draw a number out of a hat to pick the winner. Fairness won out. That’s what Mary Lee hopes for, along with a strong turnout every year. While they had 20 people participate, only four people on the SCI/D ward could attend. Mary Lee loves helping others feel joy, but it’s tough on her when not everyone can attend.
“My special part is once we get the auction started, and you see that you’ve got a good crowd out there and that they’re actually having a good time,” she says. “And my saddest part is when I get here, and I realize how many patients are on the floor in the wards that are told they can’t come to the party and they’re not here to participate in this, that I have really worked hard for these people that I was hoping would be able to get some of this stuff, and they’re not going to be able to be here. And that breaks my heart.”
Military blood runs in the Browning family. Mary Lee’s father, Ned Campbell, was a World War II veteran. Robert is a Vietnam War veteran. Her late son, Richard Browning, was a Desert Storm veteran, and Tracy is an Iraq-era veteran. Tracy has lived with his parents since 1996, moving back in with them and building onto their existing house. He tries to help whenever he can but acknowledges this is all because of his mom.
“ … My injury is what made her start doing this,” Tracy says. “She wanted to help. She saw the need.”
A Family Affair
Hospital workers, patients and the Brownings have become like family for 89-year-old Army veteran Al Carruth and his wife, Peggy. After Al sustained a T9 SCI from falling off a building while doing work for a real estate company in 1997 in Russellville, Ark., he rehabbed at the hospital. The Carruths have attended the Christmas party each of the last 20 years and joined in whether or not Al was a hospital patient. They drove up from Millington, Tenn., about an hour away, for last year’s party.
“I was amazed,” says Al, who served from 1951 to 1953. “We haven’t been away from here, oh maybe, six years off and on, how many people we still know.”
After Al’s injury and rehab, the couple volunteered, with Al serving as the new-injury helper and Peggy as the front desk worker.
“He enjoys coming up here, just with the camaraderie that he has with all these guys,” Peggy says. “We’ve been coming to the hospital for 23 years and this bunch of guys, they’ve gone different places.”
Just like the Carruths, Raymond Fulton keeps coming back year after year. He’s attended for at least the last 15 years, usually bringing his wife, Katherine, and his grandchildren. This past year, they had three grandchildren — 14-year-old Jymyira, 11-year-old Jamard and 6-year-old Jydarelle — join them from Memphis. Jymyira and Jydarelle have come consistently, but this marked Jamard’s first time back in four years.
“He always said we’d be here too long,” says Fulton, laughing.
An Army veteran, Fulton served as a saxophone player in the Army band. He was injured during an ice storm in Memphis in 1994. While waiting for his car to warm up, a tree limb fell on the back of the neck, leaving him in a coma for two weeks and crushing his T5-7 vertebrae.
“I drawn up and gone in Vietnam and 30 years later, a tree fell on me,” Fulton says. “That goes to show you something about getting around. But I woke up and said, ‘I’m going forward, not backward.’ ”
Fulton won a drone for $65 and a 360-degree heater for $45, and he added a few more gifts for his grandchildren. Jydarelle was the one who ended up with the most presents, though. Besides helping break a couple of ties by picking numbers out of a hat or off a table, Jydarelle also picked numbers for raffle prizes. And every time she helped out, Mary Lee told her to go pick a small gift off the children’s table. That type of spirit, generosity and friendship keeps Fulton coming back.
“To get out and have good fellowship and get out during the holidays in a safe environment,” says Fulton, laughing. “ ’Cause there’s so much stuff going on, I’m telling you. But you know it’s a safe environment here, and the atmosphere is friendly.”