It’s 9:45 on a Wednesday morning on Charlotte’s west side.
Three hours ago, four sleepy-eyed kids walked out of Antrinette Pharr’s home, bound for the school bus. Four younger ones are still inside, playing and watching cartoons in a neatly kept living room. A Christmas tree decorated with colorful candy canes stands in the corner, and holiday cards are taped to the wall.
In less than a year, Pharr’s family expanded by four children. None of them were hers.
Pharr, 35, now cares for her three youngest kids and four nieces and nephews. On some days – like this one – she also watches a grandson. The children range from 1-year-old twin girls to a 15-year-old boy.
“Taking care of seven kids is not really easy,” Pharr said. “You hear a lot of crying and have to change a lot of diapers.”
To complicate matters, Pharr lost her job working at a trucking company in August. She survives, for now, on government assistance for the kids and her 62-year-old mother, who shares the three-bedroom home with Pharr.
Like thousands of families across Charlotte, Pharr is asking for help this Christmas. She signed up with the Salvation Army’s Christmas Bureau to receive donated toys for the youngest children. The bureau will provide toys to more than 12,000 children this holiday season. The Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund is helping raise the money.
“I was a single parent already, but this is financially harder,” said Pharr, who separated from her husband in 2004.
Pharr’s life changed in September 2012, when a Pennsylvania social services department ruled the twin girls could not live with their mother. Pharr’s brother, who is the girls’ father, didn’t have the means to work and care for the young twins at the same time.
So Pharr took in the girls, who were just 3 weeks old and suffered medical complications from their premature births.
Pharr, a lifelong Charlotte resident, and her mother took turns caring for the babies while the other went to work. At the time, Pharr was earning just $8 an hour.
“But we made it,” she said.
Eight months later, the twins’ mother and her 3-year-old daughter moved in. The mom hoped that living in the Pharr home would give her time to get back on her feet. But the arrangement failed and the mom had to move out.
As if that wasn’t enough, Pharr’s 10-year-old nephew moved down from Pennsylvania in June. Pharr took him in, too.
Seven kids – four new – now call Pharr’s house their home.
Similar scene across city
Similiar situations happen behind the scenes all across Charlotte. The number probably increases as the economy dips – and with it mental health and substance-abuse services – said Robert McCarter, managing attorney for Council for Children’s Rights.
“There are a lot of families who are taking care of families,” McCarter said. “It’s a great credit to those who can do it and do it successfully.”
Most of the time, the kids in Pharr’s home seem content, entertaining and playing with each other. The littlest ones like to get into trouble by crawling under the television stand.
Dinner happens early, around 4:30 p.m. School work and play fill the hours before some kids take to the beds for a night’s sleep. By 9 p.m., Pharr is exhausted.
But despite the difficulties, Pharr has no regrets, she said.
“I feel like God is letting me help them out to make a difference in their lives,” she said. “It’s hard because you have to make a lot of sacrifices.”
‘Won’t turn my back’
Christmas wish lists at the home aren’t long: a two-seat wagon for the twins, or a Doc McStuffin toy for the 3-year-old would be nice. But Pharr has already warned the children that if she can’t afford anything this holiday, then perhaps times will be easier when she receives her income tax return next year.
Pharr is hoping for a smoother 2014. Once she has the money to repair her 2000 Ford Explorer, she’s planning to become an independent carrier, delivering everything from blueprints to blood for companies in North Carolina and surrounding states.
Years ago, Pharr said, she was successful at it. It’s a job that’s possible to do with kids, since she can load them in car seats and take off down the road.
The situation with her nieces and nephew is a bit murkier.
“If the kids do not go back to their mom in a year, then I’ll go and try to find a four-bedroom house,” Pharr said. “I won’t turn my back on them.”
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