The day before Thanksgiving, 7-year-old Bradley accompanied his grandmother to the Home Depot on North Wendover Road, where the two picked out a Christmas tree bigger than a giant.
Bradley swears it is the best tree hes ever seen, but thats coming from a boy whos never actually had a Christmas tree. The same is true for his 4-year-old brother, Gavin, and 17-month-old sister, Madison, who also came along.
Their grandmother, Alexandra, knows this to be true. But she said she didnt realize the impact of her $29.97 purchase until the tree was in the trunk of her car and the three mesmerized kids refused to take their eyes off it during the drive home.
It was scary, Bradley said. We had to go real slow, because if the tree fell out, wed have no Christmas.
Explaining thats not how Christmas works is one of many unexpected conversations the 47-year-old Charlotte woman has had since taking in her grandchildren three months ago.
None of three has celebrated Christmas before or Easter, Thanksgiving or even their own birthdays, she said.
That all will change this year, though. The three are among 12,200 kids from low-income families registered to get free toys from the Salvation Armys Christmas Center. The gifts from Santa are paid for in part by donations to Observers Empty Stocking Fund.
Alexandra, who prefers not to give her full name, said she intends to show her grandchildren all the magic they missed while being raised in Silverhill, Ala., by two drug addicts.
One of those addicts was the second oldest of her three sons, who she said cut ties with her five years ago.
Prescription drugs, meth, you name it, and her son and his girlfriend were abusing it, Alexandra said.
I have to respect them for one thing, she said. They called and said they were tired of watching their kids starve and had decided to give them away. I said, No, youre not giving away my grandchildren. Ill be in the car this afternoon.
And so she got a friend to drive her to Alabama, where they found the children living in squalor in a 1970s-era mobile home at the end of a muddy road.
They were malnourished, dehydrated, filthy, wearing rags and smelled of dirty diapers, said Alexandra, adding that all three had health problems associated with being in or around a meth lab.
Gavins skin was peeling off. The baby had crystal meth sores on her legs, face and back; and Gavin and Bradleys gums were blistered and bleeding. They had rotten spots on their teeth.
Three months later, shes still learning things that make her want to cry, including that the two older kids have told her they know how to pack a pipe with weed for smoking.
Specialists are assessing the emotional and developmental damage, but Alexandra is optimistic. The sores are fading, two of the three are enrolled in the school system and therapy is going well. Theyre also going with her to church, including Sunday school, and have learned to say grace before meals.
In addition, she is getting unexpected support from her 9-year-old daughter, Rain, whom she adopted seven years ago from another troubled home. Rain, who is also getting toys through the Salvation Army, is now a straight-A student and is preparing to run a 5K for charity, she said.
Anthony Miller, one of Alexandras brothers, is not surprised that his sister has once again taken in a child in need, or rather, three of them.
I couldnt do it. If I spent 24 hours in that house, theyd have to put me in the hospital, he said. But even when she was young, she had a habit of bringing home anything that didnt run from her. Shes got that kind of a heart.
Alexandras endurance was clear Friday, when the four children took control of decorating the tree. More ornaments hit the floor than made it onto branches. In the process, the kids argued, one cried and hid, and the 17-month-old crawled in the box of decorations and began tossing them in the air like confetti.
But the tree still came out looking perfect, at least in the kids opinions.
If all goes as hoped, this Christmas will be the start of a new life filled with birthday cakes, Easter baskets and small change from the tooth fairy, Alexandra said.
It wont be easy, because of her being out of work now for health reasons, but shes talking a lot about feeling lucky these days.
I love giving them the things theyve never had, but it is heartbreaking when youre dealing with a child thats never blown out the candles on a cake, Alexandra said.
Sometime the tears start to flow, but I believe God has blessed me to do this. He led me here. Hell get me through it.
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