Empty Stocking Fund

Cancer survivor turns to Salvation Army to shield son from family’s troubles

Cannetta Solomon and her son Cho'zen for an empty stocking profile to run next week. They are the only two people in the household and she is a cancer survivor.
Cannetta Solomon and her son Cho'zen for an empty stocking profile to run next week. They are the only two people in the household and she is a cancer survivor. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Doctors once called Cannetta Solomon into a room and told her she had only 12 months to live.

Her cervical cancer had spread to other organs.

But six years later, Solomon is still alive, with a 9-year-old son named Cho’Zen and big dreams of having a house with a patio grill and a backyard trampoline.

The struggles of this mother and son have been many, which is why Cho’Zen is among the 10,400 Charlotte children enrolled in the Salvation Army’s Christmas program. Each of the children is from a family that can’t afford Christmas toys.

Most of the 10,400 will be adopted by donors, who pluck children’s names off Angel Trees at malls. The children not picked will get toys supplied by Observer readers via donations to the Empty Stocking Fund. Last year, the fund bought toys for 3,300 children.

Many of the 5,000 households enrolled in the program are headed by elderly or disabled adults.

Solomon, 44, has both legs in braces, but she says that didn’t stop her from hitching a ride to the Salvation Army’s Christmas Center (she doesn’t know how to drive) and waiting in line for two hours to register her son. Once inside, she says she was told she didn’t have all the proper paperwork, which meant having to come back and wait in line two additional hours.

It was worth it, Solomon says, so she could bring some joy to a boy who refuses to give up on her. Solomon says Cho’Zen has been forced to face a lot of things other fourth graders can’t imagine, including living for a time in a Charlotte homeless shelter.

“I try to hide as much of our problems from him as I can. If I get overwhelmed, I cry where he can’t see,” she says. “My baby boy is mature and responsible, but it’s like he’s 90 years old. He has an old soul. He’s my best friend and the reason God is keeping me alive.”

Among the things she’s hiding from him is her fear of cancer returning. Dying terrifies her, but worse still is the idea of leaving her son in the hands of strangers. Solomon says her own parents, back in New York, were neglectful and never bothered to celebrate Christmas.

What would happen if Cho’Zen ended up in a home like that, she wonders.

Last Christmas, she made it a point to celebrate the holiday, even though they were staying in a hotel by Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Cho’Zen got gifts to open, but she believes the highlight of the day was sitting side-by-side on the hotel balcony, quietly watching it rain.

This year will be better, because they have their own apartment at Renaissance West Community, a new mixed-income housing development that is replacing the old Boulevard Homes housing project.

Solomon has a Christmas tree up and has hung a stocking with her son’s name on it. She’s hoping it will be a day filled with simple, quiet moments shared with her son.

“The world is so caught up in the wrong things lately,” she says. “It’s almost as if there is no such thing as innocence any more. To me, the best thing about Christmas is watching your children run, jump and play. That’s something I can’t do any more, and it’s something we all take for granted.

“I see Christmas morning as the time to appreciate all the things we take for granted like that.”

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

Donate online at 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.