As parents streamed into the Salvation Army Christmas Bureau this fall to register their children for toys during the holiday season, they were always asked a final question: Do you have a prayer request?
Those who answered “yes” scrawled their intentions on small white cards and tied them to a Christmas tree.
And as the weeks passed, the tall tree became covered with hundreds of those prayer cards that bore the worries of Charlotte’s low-income population. A majority were written in Spanish.
“Father in heaven: It’s been 15 years since I’ve seen my mother and I don’t want her to leave this world without me seeing her again. For my kids and my family,” one says in Spanish.
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And another: “First, to thank God for my health and my pregnancy, that it all goes well. A special request for the health of my mother and all of my family in Guerrero, Mexico, who suffered the earthquake and Hurricane Max. For all of my family and friends who are going through critical situations, that they would have food.”
Approximately 69 percent of applicants to the Salvation Army’s Christmas program are Latino residents of Charlotte, program leaders say, and the tree reflects that. Among prayers for food and shelter are requests for legal status, for relief for their kids from bullying and for help finding work.
“My name is Alma. I want to ask for help making a prayer chain for my husband, that the judge cancels his deportation at his next court date,” one card reads.
Parents of more than 10,700 children came to the Salvation Army’s Christmas program headquarters on Arrowood Road in October, asking to have their children ages infant through 12 “adopted” as angels on Angel Trees in area malls and businesses. To qualify, parents had to supply their children’s birth certificates, documents proving the family’s financial need, proof of address, a parent’s photo ID and either a parent’s Social Security card or an Individual Tax Identification Number.
Angels not plucked from trees or those whose gifts aren’t supplied or aren’t given enough presents receive toys courtesy of the Charlotte Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund. The fund also helps buy stockings and stocking stuffers for children as well as boxes of food for the children’s families and gift cards for low-income seniors and disabled residents.
Those who work to collect and distribute gifts this month say they see the prayers families have written as much more than decorations on the Christmas tree.
As they worked to register families, Salvation Army staff and volunteers paused by the tree periodically and read the prayers, offering up their own as well. Once the holiday season is through, the prayer cards are taken down and distributed to area churches (local Latino churches receive many of the prayers written in Spanish), Salvation Army staff and the local Salvation Army board, Broome says.
“We always want people to know we’re praying for them, we care about them and we want to be of help to them,” says Major Larry Broome, area commander of the Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte. “We don’t want people to think we’re only about toys.”
“We want to make sure people know, when they’re in their neediest, that there is hope,” Broome says.
“Some (parents) have to think about: Do I get toys for my kids or do I buy food or pay rent? We’re helping them with basic physical needs,” Broome says. “This time of year puts people in worse dire straits than they would normally be in.”
On a chilly October morning, a woman named Benita sat in line to register her 6-month-old baby, Sofia, for gifts.
She’d been to the Christmas bureau for help when her older children, now ages 15 and 13, were little.
In recent years, the family income has been good enough to not ask for help at Christmas. However, now that she’s out of work and caring for her infant, the family needs help paying for items like warm clothes, shoes and baby toys for Sofia.
“It helps me to see that people care,” she says.
Empty Stocking Fund
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 of the donations go 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. We’ll publish all donors’ names. If the contributor gives in someone’s memory or honor, we’ll publish that name, too. Contributors can remain anonymous.
How to help
To donate online: www.charlotteobserver.com/living/helping-others/empty-stocking-fund/article116262948.html. 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 through the Salvation Army: 704-714-4725.