Tarasa Wright is no longer heartbroken that the man she once loved ran off and left her with two toddlers, the youngest of whom is in treatment for a curvature of the spine.
She says she’s happier now, having met a better man, her former neighbor Oscar Santiago. The two wed in January after dating for three years, and he has taken to Tony, 6, and Andrea, 4, as if they were his own kids.
But having a child with scoliosis is a drain on the family’s finances, so the couple recently signed up the children to get toys from the Salvation Army’s Christmas program. Donations from Charlotte Observer readers to the Empty Stocking Fund will pay for roughly half the toys this year.
Tony and Andrea believe in Santa and their mother wants them to hold on to that fantasy for reasons many people have likely not considered.
“My dream for Christmas morning is for Andrea to wake up and for that one day, feel normal and play with her toys like any other child. For that one day, she can do everything her brother can do,” says Wright, 34, who believes Santa can be “the great equalizer” for children with disabilities.
“You see that spark in their eyes, despite all they have been through. Every child is equal that morning.”
This year, Tony wants toy cars and a bike. Andrea wants dolls and picture books with big words.
The expense of Andrea’s ongoing treatment has led the family to the Shriners for help. She has appointments once every seven weeks at the Shriners’ orthopedic hospital in Greenville, S.C.
Oasis Shriners Chief Executive Officer Todd Ham says about 116 children from the Charlotte area visit the hospital for help, with the 5,800 Shriners in Western North Carolina donating additional money to cover the parents’ transportation and lodging costs.
Andrea is also developmentally delayed and has weekly appointments for speech therapy and physical therapy.
It’s the lost hours at work that are having the biggest impact on their finances, Wright says. She works a 30-hour-a-week job as a waitress, and Santiago works in a warehouse. She says she got lucky finding a man “with a heart of gold” who saw their marriage as a package deal, with two kids included.
“They show me so much love, I have to love them back,” says Santiago, 28. “I want to be the good father they deserve.”
Wright hopes their future together will one day include buying a home with a backyard, and family vacations to Disney World. And like all mothers of children with disabilities, she hopes her daughter finds a place in the world where people don’t see her as different.
“I wish Andrea could just be normal and not have all these appointments and therapists and tests that have to be done,” says Wright. “I want her to run and play and do all the things other kids her age do.”
For now, Wright says the closest Andrea will get is Christmas morning, when she sees all those toys under the tree.
It won’t matter whether they’re from some anonymous donor or Santa himself, Wright says.
There’s no difference in the eyes of a 4-year-old.
The Empty Stocking Fund
The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. Last year, readers contributed nearly $374,000 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. For questions about your donation, call 704-358-5520. For questions about helping families, call Salvation Army Donor Relations: 704-714-4725.
Total raised so far: $52,776