Tiffany Thompson says she can tell you the exact moment her finances took a U-turn. It was April 29, when a phone company in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia laid her off after five years on the job.
Most people would see that as a setback, but 32-year-old Thompson considered it an opportunity.
For the first time in her life, she would be able to go anywhere, do anything and be anybody she wanted to be. So Thompson did just that, packing up her two kids – and her severance package – and moving to Charlotte, where two job interviews were waiting.
That was three months ago and Thompson says she’s working now and loving Charlotte.
But it’s been tougher than expected to pay the bills, particularly the exorbitant rent. That’s why she turned to the Salvation Army for help getting Christmas toys for her two girls, 4 and 11. They are among more than 10,400 kids in the program, which relies in part on the Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund to get money for toys.
Last year, the Empty Stocking Fund helped cover the cost of toys for 3,300 children who were not adopted by other donors.
Thompson wants to believe this is the first and last time she’ll need such help.
“I’m from a place where I was surrounded by family and they all tried to talk me out of coming here,” she says. “I just felt like I needed to take that leap. I have spent my entire life living with someone else, and I felt like I needed to grow up. I’m enjoying this journey, even it isn’t the easy choice.”
In many respects, Thompson represents the tidal wave of change overtaking Charlotte.
The city added an average of 109 people every day in the previous five years, overwhelming the rental market, adding about 10,000 students to the school system, and pushing social services agencies and charities to their financial limits.
Wife and mother Brandi Brooks, 32, is another newcomer, having moved here from Orangeburg, S.C., in October 2015, after the family’s home was flooded during a tropical storm. She also registered children in the Salvation Army’s Christmas program.
Both she and her husband have found jobs, but the cost of living – including daycare fees – keeps them one step from financial stability. The couple have two children, ages 7 and 8, and are raising two nephews, ages 8 and 17.
“To be in a position that we can’t provide for our kids at Christmas is not fair to them,” says Brooks. “Before this happened, we were the ones adopting a family for Christmas or volunteering at hospitals. We’ve never been at this end of the spectrum before.”
Brooks and Tiffany Thompson are examples of the lengths parents go through for their children, whether it’s fibbing about why they can’t go to the movies or asking strangers for help with Christmas toys.
Thompson says the balance of seeing her girls happy is worth the cost of a bruised ego.
Her best Christmas memories are typically about who she was with that morning, rather than what kinds of toys she got. Thompson is hoping it will be the same for her girls, who get excited over little things like the free cookie and fruit samples at Harris Teeter stores.
“The biggest thing I learned since moving here,” she says, “is that home is where ever my girls are. No matter what happens, we have each other.”
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.