Empty Stocking Fund

After abuse, fire and homelessness, single mom’s thankful for Christmas help

Jameela Horton with her son Tatyana, 3, left, and son Zacarias, 1, along with Salvation Army case officer Lindsay Shytle, on Tuesday, November 15, 2016. Horton survived a house fire, lost everything and is rebuilding her life with the help of the Salvation Army.
Jameela Horton with her son Tatyana, 3, left, and son Zacarias, 1, along with Salvation Army case officer Lindsay Shytle, on Tuesday, November 15, 2016. Horton survived a house fire, lost everything and is rebuilding her life with the help of the Salvation Army. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Jameela Horton says she was 7 months pregnant when she fled a small town in Western North Carolina to escape an abusive relationship.

She eventually landed in Charlotte, believing she could easily distance herself from the past in a big city.

But there’s no running away from bad luck, and 30-year-old Horton has had her share, including a landlord who embezzled from his tenants, a house fire that ruined most of her possessions, and six months of living with her kids in a homeless shelter.

Horton now finds herself starting over in life yet again, which is why she turned to the Salvation Army’s Christmas program to get toys for her five children. They’re among 10,000 kids who’ll get free toys this year, bought by donors who plucked childrens’ names off Angel Trees at malls.

In cases where names weren’t picked, donors to The Charlotte Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund pay for the toys. Last year, that amounted to about 3,300 children.

Horton would like to believe she’ll never need this kind of help again. The Salvation Army found her a home in September through its Rapid Rehousing Program, which houses parents who need only a little help to get back on their feet.

She got a job six months ago, a good one working in a cafeteria for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

It’s been a tough recovery, she says, noting that day care fees are chewing up more money than she can cover. Plus, the family members need a lot after losing many of their belongings in a house fire.

No one was at home when the fire broke out. Horton arrived at the burning house just after the firefighters, and she remembers feeling helpless as she was told to stay clear of the property.

“All I could think is: ‘What are we going to do now?’ ” she says. “My children got off the school bus and didn’t know what was going on. We all had to sit there, watching and waiting as the smoke started coming out.”

Her children, who range in age from 1 to 8, still need clothes. And the family lost all its Christmas decorations, which the kids believe are 10 times more important than clothes.

She looks back on her time in the shelter as a test, and she believes she passed it. Charlotte’s homeless population has its share of the mentally ill, the addicted and the perpetually angry, and they all come together at the city’s shelters.

One night, a squirrel got in as well, and Horton recounts a moment that’s both funny and sad: “In the middle of the night women were screaming and jumping. It was crazy. We didn’t know what it was till the next morning.”

Horton has a Christmas “to do” list now, which includes planning a menu for her first home-cooked Christmas dinner in a couple of years.

She says she can worry about those kind of details only because the Salvation Army will help with toys.

“I’ll never know who paid for them,” she says, “but I’d like to say thank you. Thank you for helping me handle a burden that I couldn’t handle on my own.”

Next year, it will be different, she believes. Luck is finally on her side.

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.

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