There’s a long, straight scar down the center of Aida Hernandez’s chest: evidence for the single mom of both the pain and the blessings that she and her two sons have experienced this year.
All of Hernandez’s extended family lives in Honduras, so when she underwent two open-heart surgeries this year, all she could think of was making it through to care for her two sons, ages 5 and 12.
“I kept saying, ‘God, give me health and give me life, because they’re too young to survive on their own,’ ” Hernandez recalls.
She survived the surgeries, which were in May and July, to correct a heart condition that doctors say she’s likely had since birth.
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But because recuperation from heart surgery is slow, and doctors say she must wait 18 months to return to her physically demanding job in construction finishing, the Charlotte family isn’t back on its feet financially.
So in October, Hernandez asked a friend to drive her to the Salvation Army Christmas Bureau headquarters on Arrowood Road to apply for her two boys, Edin and Eduar, to receive Christmas gifts she could put under the tree.
The boys are two of more than 10,700 children from financially struggling homes across Charlotte whose names and wish lists were placed on Angel Trees in area malls and businesses thanks to the Salvation Army and the Charlotte Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund.
In the past week, Hernandez returned to the Salvation Army Christmas Bureau to pick up the toys and a bicycle that donors had gifted her sons. They’ll open them Christmas morning under a sparkling white Christmas tree that her friend and apartment-mate put up recently.
It’s been a tough year for her boys, Hernandez says.
She began the year relatively healthy, but her heart condition gradually worsened to the point where she was gasping for breath and could barely stand last spring. A friend drove her to the emergency room for emergency surgery. A second surgery was needed two months later.
She was in the hospital for 22 days following the first surgery, and six weeks after the second. Her sons were able to stay in their apartment and were cared for by another family who lives with them, but they missed their mom.
Eduar, 12, still tears up when he thinks about the weeks when mom wasn’t around, and he says he worries she’ll get sick again.
“They would call me and cry: ‘When are you coming home?’ ” Hernandez recalls.
Now she’s home and feeling well, and says she’s grateful she is healthy enough to care for her boys, even if she can’t scoop Edin up like she used to and has to hug them gently so as to not disturb her incision.
She does small catering jobs out of her home to raise money for rent (the close friends that she and the boys share an apartment with have helped float her rent money when she’s been unable to pay), but each week is a struggle, she says.
Edin, her kindergartener, brings home backpacks with food from school every Friday that helps the family get through the weekend.
Friends and church groups help her too, with warm clothes for the kids and food when the pantry is empty.
“Seeing the help from others makes you forget the sickness and the bad things that have happened,” Hernandez says. “I’m so grateful to be able to see my sons happy at Christmas.”
Empty Stocking Fund
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 of the donations go 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. We’ll publish all donors’ names. If the contributor gives in someone’s memory or honor, we’ll publish that name, too. Contributors can remain anonymous.
How to help
To donate online: www.charlotteobserver.com/living/helping-others/empty-stocking-fund/article116262948.html. 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 through the Salvation Army: 704-714-4725.