For a few weeks this spring, Leslie Morgan’s life became the kind of tragedy every parent fears when a child leaves the house to go play.
Her son, 9-year-old Jonathan, was savagely attacked in his Archdale neighborhood in April by two pit bulls that chewed and ripped at his arms, legs, face and right ear.
It’s been eight months and 31-year-old Morgan still gets choked up talking about the attack, which forced doctors to put the boy in a body cast for weeks.
She and her husband, house painter Genaro Rosales, are struggling financially, due to days taken off from work to stay at Jonathan’s side. As a result, they have turned to the Salvation Army’s Christmas program to get toys for their three children: Noel, 3, Isabel, 4, and Jonathan, who turns 10 on Dec. 20.
The three are among 10,000 children registered in the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program, which asks donors to pluck childrens’ names off trees at malls and buy the toys on a child’s Christmas list. In cases where names aren’t picked, donations to the Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund help pay for the toys. Last year, 3,300 children got toys through the fund.
Morgan’s story is among the more unusual in the program this year, though she remains fuzzy on some of the key details. That’s because the Gastonia native fainted at the sight of her boy covered in blood and a series of terrifying wounds.
“What I remember from that day is Jonathan’s best friend banging on the door and the only words that came out of his mouth were ‘Jonathan, blood, dog’,” she recalls. “I ran to the park and I heard people hollering ‘He’s dying, get help.’ Then I saw him at the back of the soccer field, staring at people, covered in blood. I fell to my knees and passed out.”
Morgan says she awoke while being carried to an ambulance. Jonathan was there, too, and she says he turned to her and said words she can’t get out of her head:
“Mama, I’m dying and I’m going to Heaven.”
Witnesses told police Jonathan and his friends were playing soccer in Archdale Park in south Charlotte when two dogs started chasing them. The children tried protecting themselves with sticks, but one of them bit Jonathan and refused to let go. The dogs took a “hunk” of flesh out of his left leg and right arm, tearing at his muscles and nerves. He also suffered injuries to his face, ears and to the back of his head.
In a hospital bed interview with WBTV, Jonathan described the attack in terms only a 9-year-old boy would use.
“Ate me up like a bowl of chicken noodle soup,” he matter-of-factly explained.
The boy, who is now in the fourth grade, has gone through nine surgeries so far for ligament damage in one leg and fractures in the other. Skin was missing from each arm and parts of his head.
His mother says the holidays come at a time when Jonathan is far from recovery. He’s in physical therapy and is dealing with back and leg problems. He’s also in counseling, with an understandable fear of stray dogs. There are anger issues, too, she says.
“He stays in his room a lot,” she says. “I’m worried about him.”
As for the impact on her, she worries more about her childrens’ whereabouts and calls the police any time she sees a dog running loose near their home.
The pit bulls that attacked him in May were put down and the owner is being held accountable for the medical costs, she says.
The Salvation Army’s promise of Christmas toys has eased some of her worries. A local church also helped the family in recent weeks, supplying money to cover two months rent and utilities. Morgan says she sent “thank you” cards to the people who have helped.
Gratitude is something Morgan says she learned growing up in a family with nine children. Her father, a construction worker, died when she was 19, and their mother lost the family home soon after. Struggle has made the family appreciate things more, she says.
If all goes as planned, this Christmas morning will include toys for the kids and a big family meal. She and her husband don’t expect to exchange gifts, because they already got what they wanted most.
“My son is still here. I’m blessed.”
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.