If there is a place in Charlotte where heartbreak and hope cross paths, it’s the registration line for free toys outside the Salvation Army’s annual Christmas program.
Ten thousand children were registered this year, every one the responsibility of an adult who has fallen on hard times. The free toys will be handed out starting Dec. 15, thanks to generous donors across Charlotte, including people who give to the Charlotte Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund which kicks off today.
In a growing number of cases, the nearly 5,000 households that registered this year are headed by newcomers to Charlotte. This includes parents who fled the coast just a few weeks ago after losing all their belongings to the wind and rain of Hurricane Matthew.
Such families arrived to find a city that is itself in recovery, still dealing with the fallout from violent September protests that highlighted the employment and housing challenges facing Charlotte’s low-income families.
Salvation Army officials say they picked up on the despair late last year, after launching a program to take prayer requests from parents registering for free toys.
“Hundreds responded and they wanted prayers for housing, prayers for kids in trouble, prayers for jobs that paid more and prayers for health,” said Major Larry Broome, area commander for The Salvation Army.
“It wasn’t a matter of praying for more stuff in their lives. These are people who are burdened and wondering: What is the next day gong to bring me? If there’s one thing to be learned from the protests, it’s that we need to start listening to people who are different than ourselves. It’s the only way we’ll learn what we have in common.”
Broome says it was clear the agency needed to think of new ways to help families, beyond just free toys.
So this year, for the first time, the Salvation Army included a job fair as part of the registration process. Parents who came looking for free toys were given a chance to interview with a half-dozen companies, including Harris Teeter and Family Dollar.
A surprise is also in store when those families come back to get their toys Dec. 15, 16, 19 and 20. Each will receive a box of food, filled with the makings of a Christmas dinner.
The food comes at a time when a recent survey by Loaves & Fishes revealed half the people in the study had used their grocery money to pay rent. The box of food is intended to help families maintain the holiday tradition of a shared Christmas meal, said Broome. The food is being offered in a partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank.
“Christmas toys for their kids are nice things,” said Broome, “but you have to address the basic needs that brought them through our doors in the first place. It would be nice if these people were able to get back on their feet, and next year would be the ones helping others at Christmas.”
Tradition has it that children registered in the program have their name and Christmas wish list pinned to Angel Trees at local malls. Donors pluck the names off and supply the gifts. In cases where names aren’t picked, the Observer’s Empty Stocking program raises the money to buy the toys. That’s about one-third of the children registered in the program.
Last year, 3,300 children had toys purchased through the Empty Stocking Fund, which in recent years has raised an average of nearly $370,000. The typical age of the children in the program is 4 to 10.
Kyra Stewart, 33, is among the newcomers who registered for free toys for two children, ages 1 and 6. She moved to Charlotte this summer from New York, looking for a job and a better life. It hasn’t worked out as quickly as she hoped, however.
Stewart was filing out a prayer request when she noticed the job fair.
“This is just beautiful and maybe it will help people like me,” she said. “I’ve been worried about how I’m going to make it, and now I turn around and here is a job fair. It offers hope and makes you feel like somebody cares what’s happening to us. I’ve been living off savings, and we don’t even have beds yet.”
Antonisha Lawton, 27, was ahead of Stewart in the job fair line, and she made sure to talk to each of the six employers. She was there to register a 5-year-old boy for toys, a need that arose after her employer cut her schedule from 40 to 32 hours a week.
“I’ve been looking for a job for two months,” she said. “I was making it before, but everything now is a struggle. I’ve lost $400 a month from my paycheck and bills take every cent I’ve got.
“I want to work. I want to provide for my son like any other mother.”
While talking to the employers, Lawton says she learned that the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools needed cafeteria workers, a job that would come with benefits. There was no guarantee she’d be hired, but Lawton says the news gave her the one thing she’s been missing for a long time.
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 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.