One of the biggest curiosities of the Salvation Army’s Christmas program is the number of babies registered each year.
Ten percent of the 10,400 children in the program are less than a year old, making them too young to know who Santa is. But the Salvation Army does not refuse them, believing Santa is as much a parent’s fantasy as a child’s.
Estefani Montiel of Charlotte is proof. Her 8-month-old daughter, Heidy Sandoval, is among the infants in the program and Montiel believes this will be the most important Christmas the family ever celebrates.
That’s because Heidy was born three months premature and nearly died last spring during what was supposed to be a relaxing family vacation.
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Montiel, 21, says nothing has gone according to plan in the months since, including losing her customer service job in July.
Christmas will be the exception, however. Montiel intends it to be a joyous day, and to make sure, she and her husband, Wilber Sandoval, have asked the Salvation Army for help with toys.
The agency put Heidy’s name on one of its Angel Trees at a local mall, in hopes a donor will step up and buy toys to put under the family’s Christmas tree. For infants, this could include such things as bibs, blankets, touch and feel books, clothes and toys that play music.
Families in the program will also get a free box of food this year, featuring the fixings of a Christmas dinner.
Last Christmas, more than 3,300 children were not picked off Angel Trees by donors. In such cases, Observer readers help by giving money to the Empty Stocking Fund, a program that supplies the Salvation Army with extra cash to buy gifts in bulk at the last minute. One hundred percent of the money given to the Empty Stocking Fund goes to the Christmas program.
No matter which way Heidy gets gifts, her parents will pretend it’s the first of many Christmas visits Santa is making to their home.
“I didn’t know that we were going to be able to get Heidy anything until we found out about the Salvation Army,” says Montiel, noting her husband’s pay as a mechanic is stretched too thin this season.
“I want my daughter’s life to be normal and I’m going to celebrate with her every chance I get. Christmas is going to be all about doing things with her.”
In some respects, this holiday is also about Montiel and her need to make amends. She says she got angry at God once the doctors started telling her all the things her 1-pound, 6-ounce baby might never be able to do.
She prayed angry prayers, asked a lot of hard questions and demanded answers.
“I saw this little piece of a human, no bigger than the remote control for a TV, and she had all these tubes in her. It made me feel so horrible to see all the pain she was going through,” recalled Montiel.
Montiel says three months spent in hospitals revealed to her that Heidy was both a gift from God and a challenge. “I watched my daughter fighting for her life, and I realized it wasn’t about what God did to her, but about what I was going to do for her. God wanted me to fight, too, and so I fight.”
So she apologized for her angry prayers and has continued to apologize daily as Heidy has gone from sickly to chubby. The girl’s prognosis is good now and the couple’s philosophy of taking life one day at a time is changing for the better.
The future is now being discussed around their dinner table, not in terms of weeks or months, but years.
Montiel has made all kinds of plans, including an idea to celebrate two birthdays every year for Heidy: One on her original due date of July 13 and one on the day she was born, March 27.
“There are a lot of things to be afraid of,” says Montiel, “but sometimes you just have to be grateful, even when you don’t have money to pay for lights or water or medicine. I’m grateful, because God chose me for something. He chose me for Heidy.”
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.