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Bringing Christmas to thousands of kids

Donors will help provide toys for thousands of low income kids

Wife and mother Renee Tucker says she has swallowed a lot of pride since being laid off during the recession from an accounting job she held 15 years.

So there was nothing but determination Monday morning, as she stood outside the Salvation Army’s Christmas Center to get free toys for four children, ages 5 to 12.

All four, including two of her grandchildren, have asked Santa for new bikes, because theirs were stolen this year.

“I had to start getting food stamps a year ago and I tried the longest not to, because I was ashamed,” Tucker said. “But it got to where there was nothing to feed the kids with, so I applied.”

Tucker was among hundreds of parents who lined up Monday outside the Christmas Center on Arrowood Road, for the first of five days devoted to giving away toys for nearly 14,000 low-income children. Toys are given by appointment only. Local donors provided most of the gifts by “adopting” kids off Angel Trees. (Children are not allowed inside the building.) Kids not adopted by donors, an estimated 5,000, get toys provided through efforts like the Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund.

Just ahead of Tucker in line was Tyecia Wallace, 38, a wife and mother of an 11-year-old boy who also wanted a bike and a skate board. Wallace couldn’t remember the last time she had gotten a Christmas gift herself, which was fine with her.

“I hate that Jesus’ birthday has gotten so caught up with everybody else getting presents,” she said. “But when an 11-year-old sees everybody else got something but him, you want to keep that from happening.”

The festive mood Monday was overshadowed at times by talk of the shootings of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Tucker couldn’t help but note that the children killed there were the same age her youngest. She wept for their parents.

“Think about it: Those children’s gifts were probably already bought and are sitting wrapped under Christmas trees,” Tucker said. “It just tears your heart out.”

Maj. Bobby Lancaster, commander of Charlotte’s Salvation Army, said the tragedy also crossed his mind as he watched parents pick up toys and stockings stuffed with goodies.

“We’re all feeling for those families, and maybe all we can do is try to make a difference by helping families who do have their children, but can’t provide for them,” he said.

In all, 3,500 volunteers will help the agency pull off the program this year, including stocking stuffers and amateur mechanics who’ll put together 1,622 bikes for a so called “bike lottery.” The latter allows parents to spin a wheel for a chance to win a bike, because there are not enough bikes for every child.

Tucker was not among the nearly 400 bike winners on Monday, and she was clearly disappointed. “We’ll make do with what we’ve got,” she said, as volunteers helped her exit the center.

Among the center’s lesser known programs is Silver Bells, which provides gifts to more than 700 seniors and disabled adults.

Linda Blount, who is disabled, came to the center two hours before the doors opened Monday in hopes of getting a new coat as part of the Silver Bells program. She asked for boots and a pair of pants, too.

“My sisters made fun of me for getting here so early, but the only coat I have has a broken zipper. It gets cold when the wind is blowing,” said Blount, a divorced mother of two grown daughters.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I couldn’t afford a coat. I’m grateful for anything they can do to help.”

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