Empty Stocking Fund

Family that fled Hurricane Matthew struggles with life in Charlotte

Donald Murphy and Lilugenia Murphy with their grandson Ziayre Burris, 7, who has cancer. They are among the 5,000 families signed up to get help this Christmas from the Salvation Army.
Donald Murphy and Lilugenia Murphy with their grandson Ziayre Burris, 7, who has cancer. They are among the 5,000 families signed up to get help this Christmas from the Salvation Army. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Hurricane Matthew killed 26 people in North Carolina, so Lilugenia Burris considers her family lucky, even if they have spent some nights sleeping in a van since fleeing from the coast to Charlotte.

During the height of the storm, she says a tree fell through the roof of their home in Wilmington and trapped them inside for a time. Family members were all sleeping in the living room at the time, she says, huddled together on an air mattress.

Three days later, Burris and her husband, Donald Murphy, were in Charlotte, negotiating with extended family for places to sleep in already overcrowded homes.

Parris Island Fire and Emergency Services conduct a tour of Parris Island, S.C., Oct. 8, 2016, to assess damage from Hurricane Matthew. The fire department also cleared major road obstructions.

Burris cries when asked why she registered her son, 6-year-old Kendarius, to get free toys from the Salvation Army’s Christmas program this season. He’s one of 10,000 children registered this year in the program, which depends in part on the Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund to pay for toys.

“I’ve never been in a position like this, and I’m at the end of my rope,” she said after sleeping in her van when temperatures fell to near freezing in Charlotte. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’m ready to give up. We just don’t have anything and nobody can help us.”

The family’s plight has exposed one of the biggest voids in Charlotte’s critical needs network: There are no emergency shelters for intact families that include husband, wife and children. The norm is for the husband to go to the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and the wife and kids to go to the Salvation Army Center of Hope.

Burris, 43, says she’s also caring for two grandchildren, one a 7-year-old boy who is being treated for cancer. But she couldn’t register them for free toys because she’s not their legal guardian.

Both she and her husband have found work in Charlotte, but they face the same challenge as many other low-income families: Down payments for utilities, security deposits and upfront rent can mount into the thousands. She had hoped they’d be able to save up the money, but it went to pay for hotel rooms.

The Salvation Army says nearly 5,000 households registered this year with the Christmas program, which kicks off Dec. 15. Children in the program have their names put on Angel Trees at malls, and donors pluck them off and supply toys on the child’s wish list. In cases where children aren’t picked, the Empty Stocking Fund buys the toys. Last year, that amounted to 3,300 children.

Salvation Army officials say many of the parents and guardians registered are newcomers, like the Burris family. They came here because this is where most of her family live. In one case, Burris says, they were sharing a Charlotte home with 13 family members. Even the floors were crowded, she says.

She and her husband have known each other for seven years, having met when he stopped to offer her help with a stalled car. Their first date was equally old-fashioned: She invited him to her father’s 65th birthday party.

The couple pretty much lost all their possessions the night the tree fell into their rental home, bringing with it wind and rain. She says they heard a cracking noise, a boom, and then a large tree appeared in the middle of the room, inches from where they lay sleeping.

“It could have killed us,” Burris says. “It was blocking the front door, and I panicked. But my husband and oldest son were able to push it enough that we could get out. We got in our van, all eight of us, and just stayed there, praying lightning wouldn’t hit the van.”

The family has learned the hard way that there are no easy answers in Charlotte, including finding a place to stay. It remains unclear where their 6-year-old son will open his presents on Christmas, but Burris says he’ll be told they were delivered by Santa.

The more important thing, she says, is that the family will be together that morning, even if it’s in a van.

The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. Last year, readers contributed nearly $530,000 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. Questions about your donation: 704-358-5520. For helping families: 704-714-4725.