Shantora and Rasean Thomas are like many Charlotte couples, dependent on two incomes and living paycheck to paycheck.
So when 27-year-old Shantora took maternity leave from her job earlier this year, it punched a financial hole in their world. Rasean’s job as a truck driver didn’t cover all the bills, and suddenly they were faced with difficult decisions, such as paying a bill versus getting Christmas gifts for their three kids.
It could have been a heartbreaking holiday for Caden, 7; Asani 2; and Trinity, 11 months, but the Enderly Park couple found their holiday miracle in the Salvation Army’s Christmas Bureau.
Toys will be provided by the bureau to 12,200 children this Christmas, paid for in part by donations to the Empty Stocking Fund. The giving spree kicks off at 8 a.m. Wednesday, with 200 families per hour scheduled to pick up bags of toys over the course of five days.
Shantora admits she was at first reluctant to register for the program. The family had made it a point not to ask for help from charities or government assistance programs because they wanted to make it on their own.
“The public automatically assumes that because there’s a man and woman heading this family that everything falls into place and we don’t struggle, but it’s not always that way,” says Shantora.
“I almost didn’t go to the Salvation Army because I thought once they heard I have a husband, they’d assume he wasn’t doing everything possible to help our children.”
The Thomases are far from the only two-parent household that registered to get toys this year, though the Salvation Army doesn’t have an exact count. Anecdotal evidence suggests many such families have at least one job in the household but still can’t make ends meet.
Shantora expects things to get better for the family in January, when she’ll return to work as a special education bus driver for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
It’s a job that Shantora says has given her greater insight into the needs of children, and she has become fearless at nosing around when something appears wrong. As a result, she says she has uncovered several instances of suspected child abuse and reported them to authorities.
As for her own three kids, Shantora says home life during her maternity leave has been one big comedy show, including up to six changes of clothes a day for 2-year-old Asani.
“When I ask Asani what she’s doing, she’ll say: ‘I’m getting pretty for my daddy.’ But she’ll be wearing my shoes, her pajama bottoms and a baby-size Hello Kitty shirt that is so tight, it won’t even cover her belly,” says Shantora. “She thinks she’s a fashion icon.”
The children’s Christmas list is simple stuff: Toy cars for Caden, dolls and a kitchen set for Asani, and a stroller and play mat for Trinity.
As for mom and dad, Shantora and her husband aren’t expecting to exchange gifts.
It doesn’t feel right, she says, given all the needs their children have right now. But being short on cash has brought blessings in ways she never expected.
On those days when the kids get restless, Shantora has found a bathtub full of bubbles is magical. Hamburger and Tater Tots will trump a Happy Meal every time, if mom turns cooking into a big show.
“We may not have a lot of money, but our children are learning that life isn’t about buying them things,” says Shantora.
“It’s about being together, paying attention, and laughing when a child walks into the room wearing sparkly silver boots, plastic underwear and a jacket, and tells you she’s ‘Going out.’ ”
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