Christmas couldn’t come at a worse time for Syntia Soto.
She has a good job as a substitute teacher, but a worsening disability has whittled her paychecks to nothing in recent weeks.
It’s been unclear how she was going to provide gifts for her three children, until a knock came at the door Thursday morning.
Standing on her porch was a group of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers from the Hickory Grove Division, and with them were boxes of toys, food and gift cards.
Someone had heard she was in need, and that scrap of knowledge had made its way to the annual CMPD Explorers Christmas Project, an initiative that will provide toys to more than 1,700 impoverished children this Christmas.
“The fact that my children are going to be happy on Christmas morning means everything to me,” says Soto, whose three children include a 17-year-old recently enrolled at Central Piedmont Community College.
“I have taught my children how to be grateful and not to take anything for granted, and that’s what I’m feeling now. I think it’s wonderful that police want to help people in the community, despite everything that’s going.”
The “everything” she’s referring to is a year of controversy for law enforcement agencies across the country. In Charlotte, violent uptown protests erupted in September after a Charlotte police officer fatally shot Keith Lamont Scott, who refused to heed police commands to drop his gun. In other cities, there were instances of police officers being ambushed and killed, ratcheting up the distrust on both sides.
Sgt. Chris Kopp, an Explorer Scout adviser, says the department realizes the toy program has taken on added significance this year. Preconceived notions about police are a big part of the department’s image problem, he says, and the toy program is a way to reach children early.
“We don’t want a child’s first experience with a police officer to be when they are in trouble. We want to get rid of that stigma, and we want them to feel comfortable and safe coming up to a police officer,” he said. “It’s events like this that let us go into homes, where kids can see police officers are regular human beings, just trying to do kind things.”
Officer Harlan Proctor of the Hickory Grove Division has been handling toy deliveries for nearly 10 years, and he says the reactions have included tears and laughter.
On Thursday, his first stop included a home where a single dad answered the door wearing next to nothing.
“Go get dressed. We’ve got something for you,” Proctor said, with a grin.
Five minutes later, Proctor was still standing on the porch, waiting. “Maybe he thinks it was a trick.”
Demetrius Thompson, 45, opened the door not long after, explaining he’d been asleep. “My 12-year-old daughter is going to be amazed at all this,” he said, as the officers brought in a large box of toys. “I think this shows how much the police want to be involved in trying to help people. I have a relative who is a police officer, and I understand where they’re coming from.”
Toys for the CMPD Explorers Christmas Project came from officers and local donors, as well as from Toys for Tots. Support is also provided by the Salvation Army, which just concluded an even larger toy program for 10,400 children. Observer readers helped cover the cost of toys in that program by donating to the Empty Stocking Fund.
The CMPD toy project began in 1974, when a Charlotte country club hosted an event that encouraged attendees to bring toys for needy kids. The club didn’t have a way to distribute the gifts, so it gave them to the police. It has grown every year since. Last year, toys were given to just over 1,600 children. This year, the total will be closer to 1,800, said Kopp, noting deliveries continue through Christmas Eve.
Among those who went out with police Thursday were two men dressed convincingly as Santa, and they both brought wives who looked just as convincingly like Mrs. Claus.
Kathy Adams, the wife of Santa Scott Adams, says their appearance helps in cases where families aren’t very trusting. “They’ll open the door when they see us,” she says, “because Santa and Mrs. Claus are universal symbols of peace, joy and unity.
“Sometimes, they are stunned looking when they see what the officers are doing. I’d like to believe that’s because they realize Christmas will not be the cold affair they imagined it would be. Somebody cared, and it made a difference.”
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.