Yashika Byrd is a Red Cross statistic this year, not for anything she did, but for one of those family tragedies that happen in Charlotte about once every two days: A house fire.
In her case, the fire was six months ago and the family of three lost most of its belongings.
The ripple effect is an ongoing cash shortage, so Byrd registered her daughter, Zaiirah, to get gifts this Christmas from the Salvation Army. The annual Christmas program, which kicks off Dec. 17, will supply free toys to about 11,300 children, with much of the money coming from Observer readers who give to the Empty Stocking Fund.
Zaiirah is age 10 and loves everything related to My Little Pony. But her mother says the fire and its aftermath have given the girl a perspective on life far older than her years.
The blaze started in the kitchen while Byrd and Zaiirah were at a neighborhood birthday party. For a brief time that evening, the two stood outside their smoldering home, believing the girl’s father, Ruben Scudder, was dead or dying in the flames. That changes a family forever, Byrd says.
“We opened the front door and nothing but black smoke came out, and all I could think was: I got to get to my fiance,” recalled Byrd, who is 33.
“I could feel heat and see orange (fire) through the black smoke, but I went in to get him. He’s my big baby. My daughter was there and I thought of her watching something like that happen to her father. I was frantic not to let it happen.”
Scudder was in the bathroom at the time and he was oblivious to the fire, she says. It was only after the lights went out that he opened the door and saw the smoke. The sound of Scudder breaking out a bedroom window led Byrd to him. He was uninjured, but suffering from smoke inhalation.
She credits the Charlotte Fire Department with saving the family cat, and the Red Cross with giving them money enough to stay in a hotel and eat for three days. The nonprofit responded to 195 such fires in the first 11 months of this year, and assisted 292 families with everything from clothing to alternate housing, agency officials said.
“A house fire is like a domino effect,” says Byrd, who works at a distribution center in south Charlotte. “You lose your home, you lose your stuff, you lose time at work, you run short of money. We stayed with my sister for two months, like camping out. And my daughter had to switch schools because we moved. It’s one thing after another.”
The family is slowly replacing its lost furniture with items from thrift stores and Craigslist. But she says a few things can’t be replaced, like the 8-year-old artificial Christmas tree that Zaiirah loved, and the tree ornaments the girl made over the years and gave to her mom.
“I’m not sure we’ll have a tree this year. If it’s between getting a tree and getting food, we’ll get food,” said Byrd.
“I’ll feel bad, but my daughter understands when I can’t make things happen. She’s not making a fuss about things. Like I said, she has the heart of someone who has been in this world before, someone who values people more than things.”
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: $61,641