Even Santa has his limits.
Lesley Munoz knows, as the woman in charge of finding toys for children not adopted by donors in this year’s Salvation Army Christmas program.
Tuesday marked the last day of the 2016 program, and Munoz and Salvation Army officer Lt. Janai Olige were filling such toy orders at a brisk pace, as anxious parents waited on the other side of a red curtain. The toys were paid for by Observer readers who donated to the Empty Stocking Fund.
“I had one Christmas list and the girl wanted a cat,” says Munoz, laughing. “I’m not sure how Santa could have kept that alive on the shelf back here.”
Olige can top that. “I had one that wanted a car, like, a real car.”
A final tally of how many children weren’t adopted this year wasn’t available Tuesday, but it was just over 3,300 last Christmas. The Salvation Army spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars from the Empty Stocking Fund, so Munoz and Olige could have a stock pile of toys.
Empty Stocking Fund donors ranged from Family Dollar stores founder Leon Levine, who has given $10,000 over the past two years, to people who gave a few dollars anonymously.
Enough money was donated in 2015 that the Salvation Army expanded this year to provide a box of food (a complete Christmas dinner) to the 5,000 families registered in the program. The food was supplied by Second Harvest Food Bank.
Salvation Amy officials say one of the shortfalls in this year’s program was a drop in donors providing gifts for seniors in the Silver Bells program. It provides gifts for low income seniors. There were 1,300 seniors registered and volunteers were scrambling Tuesday to fill their orders. The center eventually had to give out gift cards.
Kathleen Milton, 66, was among the seniors who showed up on the final day to get gifts. “The holidays aren’t easy for seniors, because all our loved ones have passed away,” she said. “Our parents, a lot of our brothers and sisters, cousins. They’re gone and we’re alone.”
It took 2,500 volunteers to run the program this year from start to finish, including large groups from Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Vanguard, Carolinas HealthCare, Synder’s-Lance and Coca Cola.
In many respects, they participated in one of the largest community building programs in the state, one that brings together people of different races, different nationalities and different economic levels. The thousands of volunteers who serve as guides at the center tend to be middle class and many are white. The recipients are impoverished and largely of other races, including a growing number of immigrants.
“If you listen, you’ll hear them talking to each other about their kids, Christmas and all the things we have in common,” says Brianna McDonough, who coordinated volunteers at the center.
“And we do have a lot in common, even though we are from different backgrounds. Here, people tend to find what they share, and they end up hugging each other by the time they’re done. The volunteers come back year after year, too, making it a family tradition.”
Judy Lenhart was among the volunteers Tuesday. This is her fifth year and she is proof of the connection volunteers make with the recipients. When Silver Bell recipient Katherine Thompson, 75, wondered aloud if she got the hand mixer she’d wished for, Lenhart immediately volunteered to buy one for her.
“These people want things that the rest of us take for granted,” said Lenhart. “That hand mixer was such a big deal to her, and it’s something I would have bought for myself in a heart beat.
“Being here, seeing their gratitude, makes me realize how truly blessed I am.”
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.