Debra Freeman is 54, lives on a tight budget and would like to believe she’ll get to retire sometime soon.
Two people have gotten in the way of that dream, however, and they’re making no apologies.
One is a newborn boy, just six weeks old, and the other is a 5-year-old girl.
Freeman is the grandmother in this scenario, but like many of her generation, she has been forced by economics to step back into the role of raising the children of her children.
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Otherwise, they’d be on the streets.
It’s also why she recently asked the Salvation Army for help providing toys this Christmas to the two children who are now dominating her life. This year, more than 10,000 children were registered from 5,000 households, all headed by parents or guardians who are short of cash during the holidays.
The toys are purchased in part by Observer readers who donate to the newspaper’s Empty Stocking Fund.
“I’m putting my life on hold to help raise these children,” says Freeman, who works in the home healthcare field. “I don’t have enough help. My income is not enough, but I’m making due. But it does seem like I need to buy somebody a pair of shoes every two weeks. They’re growing so fast.”
Freeman is the only person with a job in her household, which includes six people: A grown daughter, the two grandchildren and her own mother, a retired baker who Freeman says is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
The Salvation Army’s Christmas program has a long history of helping grandparents who took in their grandchildren. In many cases, it’s an arrangement prompted by a lack of affordable housing for young working mothers. In other cases, it’s Baby Boomers taking a stand against reckless behavior by their grown but struggling children.
In either case, the Salvation Army’s Christmas program is intended to prevent children from paying a price for the misadventures of their parents. Among the few demands it makes on guardians is that they tell children the gifts came from Santa.
The 5-year-old in Freeman’s household is definitely a believer in Santa, reindeer, elves, and chimneys that magically expand to transport hefty men into living rooms.
Freeman, who raised two children, admits she could have said no to all this.
“Why didn’t I turn them away?” she asks rhetorically. “I guess as a parent, I want the best for my daughter, and until she can provide and do that for her children, I’ll stand by her. I love my child so much that I’ll do anything for her. I’ll do anything for both of them.”
Among her new responsibilities are teaching her two grandchildren the true meaning of Christmas. As a little girl, Freeman says her parents always insisted the family stand around the Christmas tree and pray before opening their gifts.
There were 11 children in the family, so that was always tougher to accomplish than it sounds.
Freeman has been thinking about that tradition lately, and she believes it was a good thing.
This year, she thinks it’s time to start praying again.
The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. In recent years, Observer readers have contributed an average of nearly $370,000 annually to buy needy children gifts for Christmas. All money contributed goes to the Salvation Army's Christmas Bureau, which buys toys, food, clothing and gift cards for families. To qualify, a recipient must submit verification of income, address and other information that demonstrates need. For five days in mid-December, up to 3,000 volunteers help distribute the gifts to families at a vacant department store. The name of every person who contributes to the Empty Stocking Fund will be published on this page daily. If the contributor gives in someone's memory or honor, we'll print that person's name, too. Contributors can remain anonymous.
How to help
To donate online: www.charlotteobserver.com/living/helping-others/empty-stocking-fund. Send checks to: The Empty Stocking Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269. Questions about your donation: 704-358-5520. For helping families: 704-714-4725.