Empty Stocking Fund

Teens with disabilities volunteer for Christmas program to prove Santa’s real

(L-R) Providence High School students Sarah Murphy, 15, Tanner Hartis, 21,wait for donors while teacher, Stephanie Chinn gets a hug from student Michael Hicks, 18, while tending to the Angel Tree at SouthPark Mall. A group of students from Providence High School took time to volunteer to raise money and take donations at the Salvation Army's Angel Tree in SouthPark Mall
(L-R) Providence High School students Sarah Murphy, 15, Tanner Hartis, 21,wait for donors while teacher, Stephanie Chinn gets a hug from student Michael Hicks, 18, while tending to the Angel Tree at SouthPark Mall. A group of students from Providence High School took time to volunteer to raise money and take donations at the Salvation Army's Angel Tree in SouthPark Mall jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

By the time Charlotte’s Salvation Army passes out its last toy at noon Tuesday, more than 2,500 volunteers will have played a role in the agency’s massive Christmas program.

Each has their own, very personal reason for helping complete strangers during the holidays. But one group stood out, if only for the fact that it was made up entirely of disabled Providence High teens who have held on to their belief in Santa Claus.

Those teens, all of whom have mental disabilities, say they’ve yet to see proof Santa isn’t real, so they give him the benefit of the doubt.

“Santa comes, he puts the presents under the tree, and we open them,” says 15-year-old Sarah Murphy.

Her proof?

“I leave chocolate chip cookies and milk out. He eats the cookies.”

End of discussion.

Murphy and the other teens served as hosts at the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree at SouthPark Mall, which is the busiest in the program. Their job was to help donors select a child’s name off the tree, and brief them on how to buy toys on that child’s Christmas list.

Preliminary numbers show 500 more donors “adopted” kids off Angel Trees this year in Charlotte. In situations where donors don’t adopt a child, Observer readers pay the cost by donating to the Empty Stocking Fund. Last year, it covered the cost of toys for nearly 3,300 children in the program.

Providence High teacher Stephanie Chinn says it’s no surprise that her students retain a belief in the miraculous, despite ranging in age from 15 to 22. “They are...pure,” she says, after searching for the right word. “They have not lost a sense of wonder.”

It’s that sense of wonder that makes them perfectly qualified to be volunteers, since they understand what’s at stake when children are passed over by Santa.

This is the fourth year Providence High students with disabilities have volunteered, which experts believe helps them transition to a life after high school. The students have a variety of disabilities. “It’s good for them to have something to take pride in,” Chinn says. “Something they feel is meaningful.”

The Salvation Army asks parents to tell their children Santa brought the donated toys. In fact, the agency takes the matter so seriously that children are not allowed into the Christmas Center on East Arrowood Road, where toys are dispensed at a rate of 200 families per hour.

Sarah Murphy has tips for those children if they, too, want proof Santa is real.

First of all, she says, they have to leave out the cookies and milk, plus a carrot for the reindeer.

Then, they need to sit up quietly on Christmas Eve and wait for the sound of hooves on the roof, she says.

“I’ve heard them,” Murphy says, noting it happens just before Santa comes down the chimney.

“How does he squeeze into the chimney?” she wonders aloud. “I want to ask Santa 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

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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