But LaToya Fears, 37, is more than happy to admit she got help. It wasn’t easy to ask at first, she admits, because Fears has long had a full-time job and is capable of taking care of herself.
This year there was a problem, however.
Fears had to have emergency surgery in October, and the recovery kept her out of work at a local warehouse for six weeks. That was long enough to cause a financial collapse for the family, which includes two children: a girl, age 11, and a boy, 7. She also has a 19-year-old son attending college in New York.
The two youngest were among 3,800 children who got toys this year with the help of Empty Stocking Fund donations.
“I’m not sure we would have had much of a Christmas without this,” Fears said, as she waited to pick up her toys at the Christmas Center. “I went back to work Nov. 30, but I’ve only earned one paycheck so far, and that has gone to bills. I was lucky to get a Christmas tree out of it. My children dream of toys just like every other child on Christmas.”
Help for her children came as part of a new emergency need program the Salvation Army tested this year, using Empty Stocking Fund donations. The program is open only to parents who can prove they had an emergency after the Oct. 30 deadline to register for the Christmas program.
Nearly two dozen low-income parents qualified, including people who lost jobs, suffered the recent death of a loved one, or only just moved to Charlotte. In one case, a woman was in the hospital during registration, after delivering a baby who didn’t survive.
The Salvation Army says it sets tough standards because some procrastinating parents wait until Christmas Eve to seek help, long after the last toys have been given away.
Many don’t have an excuse for missing the month-long October registration. But a few do, and it was listening to their stories that convinced Major Susan McElroy of the Salvation Army to suggest an emergency aid effort to agency’s commanders, Majors Larry and Debra Broome. At least 34 children got toys through the new program.
“There’s so much need that it’s easy for your heart to get calloused, but at the end of the day, we really just want to help the people who need it the most,” said McElroy, adding that the Empty Stocking Fund makes it possible to offer last minute help.
“Not every community has an Empty Stocking Fund that puts toys on the shelves. We have a community of people who are generous, with big hearts.”
Vondra Lewis is among the parents who qualified for the emergency aid program, getting toys for her grandchildren, ages 3 and 5.
Lewis says financial problems arose after she fought successfully to get the two out of foster care and living permanently in her home. One of the stipulations to adopting them, she says, was quitting a lucrative third-shift job so she could be home at night with the two boys. Changing shifts at the hospital meant a $6 an hour pay cut, she says.
“My mom was a workaholic, and she left me in the care of people who were abusive and mean. I’m a workaholic, too, but I promised God I’d never do that to my kids or my grandkids. I was going to be there for them, show them love and protect them,” said Lewis, 50, a mother of five adult children.
“On the days I struggle to get out of bed and keep going, I just think about those little hugs I get from two kids who thank me for everything, even if it’s just a drink of water. They are grateful for everything.”
Lewis says she sometimes wakes up wondering if she’s doing all the right things for her grandchildren, but Christmas won’t be one of those mornings.
The two will have toys, thanks to the Empty Stocking Fund. They’ll wake up early, as all kids do on Christmas, to see what Santa brought. She says they’ll be grateful.
“I’ll be grateful, too,” said Lewis. “This program is a wonderful thing. I just wish the people who gave could see the smiles on my grandchildren’s faces on Christmas. That’s the best gift of all.”
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: $392,073