Every year on Valentine's Day, Eugene Carter arrived at the Helping Hand Mission in Raleigh bearing candies, balloons and cards, which he made sure to give out to the women who worked there, as well as some clients.
"Yesterday was really hard," said his sister Elizabeth Carter, the day after the holiday. She also works at the mission, which strives to provide services for families in need. She said arriving to work on Feb. 14 was just another reminder of how things are different now that her brother is gone.
Carter died last month from a heart attack. He was 42, and for about 15 years had been a fixture at the mission, both as an employee and a volunteer.
Whether he was playing the part of Santa Claus for homeless children or preparing special food boxes for senior shut-ins, Carter was known for his enthusiasm, compassion and a snazzy wardrobe.
"He had a suit for every day," Elizabeth Carter said.
He was also known to give his clothes away to those in need.
Carter was born one of the youngest in a family of 11 children.
His parents were farmhands, and all 11 children were expected to help their parents meet their quotas in the fields. Six children helped pick tobacco and five helped with cucumbers, Elizabeth said. They also walked about a mile on a dirt road to get to the bus stop, she said.
"As he was coming up he used to love to sing," said another sister, Hattie Simmons of Raleigh. She remembers her brother loving to pretend he was at church, hollering off the porch and praising the Lord.
The family moved from Seven Springs to La Grange before moving to Goldsboro in 1985, where Carter joined the Job Corps, a federal job-training program for economically disadvantaged youth. He studied to be a minister and earn his GED.
He spent a number of years working in nursing homes, and then spent a few years nursing his parents during their final years in the 1990s, Elizabeth Carter said.
Soon after that he started volunteering, then working at Helping Hand Mission.
If you were supposed to be at the mission, but were nowhere to be found, you got a call from Carter asking your whereabouts. His dedication knew no bounds, and he thought everyone else was the same way.
"As long as I was in the mission, he knew I was all right," said his godson, Michael Massenburg, a frequent recipient of Carter's phone calls. They met at Helping Hand Mission when Massenburg was a teen benefiting from some of the youth programs there.
"He was always open-minded," Massenburg said. "Always willing to help the next person."
Carter was known for his Facebook postings - each morning and evening he made sure to thank God and leave an inspirational message for his family and friends.
Carter was gay, and at the time of his death had no children and was not in a serious relationship. All of his exes became friends, however, said his sister-in-law, Shakima Viera.
He insisted on introducing her as simply his sister, Viera said - he could be told no different. He was always honest with her, and always there in times of need.
"No matter what it was, any time I called him he was there," she said. "Now (that) he's gone, I don't have anybody to call."
The past two years, Carter, along with a younger brother, had operated a nightclub on Sundays called Cameron's in Goldsboro. It started as a haven for gays, but quickly became an inclusive party, open to all creeds and colors.
The night he died, he had just left Cameron's after having a particularly fun night, said his friend Robert Bost.
"He was the top of the show," Bost said.
Family says Carter had been complaining of chest pains for a few weeks, and had finally made a doctor's appointment. He had a heart attack outside the club in his truck, and was found by his brother.
He died at Wayne Memorial Hospital in Wayne County.
People are still learning about Carter's death, and the tears fall. Elizabeth Carter frequently has to break the news at the mission.
If people came to the mission with children, he made sure to get them a treat, or a toy if it was around Christmas. If folks seemed like they'd waited a while, be brought them a cup of coffee. He placed extra food in the baskets of shut-ins, and every year without fail played Santa.
"He was here every single Christmas Day - that was for free," said Director Sylvia Wiggins, who founded the Helping Hand Mission in 1972.
"He really left a mark in our program," she said. Helping Hand Mission plans to honor his memory by creating an Extra Mile award for those who act as he did and go above and beyond.
"He felt for people," Wiggins said. "We need more people like that."
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