Empty Stocking Fund

For these foreign exchange students, volunteering at Christmas center is eye-opening

Charlotte’s Salvation Army Christmas Center is a striking place even for city natives: thousands of new bikes are lined up in neat rows, filling the former Wal-Mart with the smell of tires. Giant white bags packed with presents for more than 7,000 children fill a ballfield-size space, and in one corner, shelves are stacked high with new toys. and bins stuffed with thousands of backpacks

So when 15 international students from the foreign exchange program Academic Year in America program walked in on a recent Saturday afternoon to work a three-hour volunteer shift, they couldn’t help but pull their phones from their pockets and start Instagramming and Snapchatting, sending images of American testament to charity across the globe.

And then they got to work, helping sort, organize and register the thousands of toys that generous Charlotteans had bought for children whose families are struggling with poverty this Christmas.

This year, about 7,300 children are registered to receive toys and clothes through the Salvation Army’s program, which matches children in need with anonymous donors who buy the gifts. Some 1,400 seniors will also receive gifts through the program.

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Where donors don’t step up, Charlotte Observer readers cover the expense by donating to the Empty Stocking Fund. Money raised by last year’s fund allowed the Salvation Army to buy 6,056 toys and 456 gifts for low-income seniors.

Each child in the program will also receive a new backpack this year, so Empty Stocking funds were used to purchase 8,000 backpacks and 20,000 small items to stuff in them. Children in the program range in age from infants to 12 years old.

Aslihan Aydogan, 17, of Istanbul, Turkey, spends an afternoon sorting donated toys at the Salvation Army Christmas Bureau. She’s spending a year in Charlotte as part of the Academic Year in America program. Cristina Bolling

Danilo Popovic from Serbia carried toddler beds and Barbie dream houses that had been dropped off, and marveled at the differences between both Christmas traditions and volunteerism between his country and the United States.

“It really is amazing that in the United States you give to such a huge amount,” said Popovic, 17, a senior at Cuthbertson High School in Union County, motioning to a mountain of just-dropped-off toys.

“We don’t have as many volunteering opportunities where I’m from,” he said. “It’s really nice for teenagers to be involved in stuff like this, and it’s really nice that you get a lot of gifts for a lot of people, so everybody can have something for the holiday.”

For Aslihan Aydogan of Istanbul, Turkey, experiencing Christmas in a predominantly Christian nation - and the Bible Belt south - was exciting and new. Islam is the largest religion in her country, and she is Muslim, so she’s had lots of opportunities at the high school she’s attending in Marshville to teach others about her religion and learn about Christianity.

“This is such a big experience for me,” Aydogan said. She was excited for her friends in Turkey to wake up and see the Instagram photos she posted of the Christmas center. (There’s an eight-hour time difference between Istanbul and Charlotte.)

“They will think this is so good that American people help the other people, because our purpose is to show people to build a bridge between two countries,” she said. “So I’m showing people that American people are not bad. They’re good.”

Melissa Jackson, local coordinator of Academic Year in America, says she plans a few volunteer activities each year for the students with the hopes that they’ll gain a cultural awareness of “the spirit of giving at Christmas.”

“It is overwhelming, the amount of families that this one distribution center serves,” Jackson said. “It’s incredible.”

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Mikayel Aydinyan of Armenia said he was so impressed with the Christmas program that he wants to find a way to duplicate its mission when he returns home.

“It’s so good that they do this. I’ve never seen this in my country. When I return to my country, I want to say to my school that we should add volunteering,” Aydinyan said.

Now, students from his school take monthly trips into the mountains to pick up trash and help clean the environment. But Aydinyan said he was so inspired by the Christmas bureau that he wants to find a way for his school community to help children at Christmas.

“I want to do it like this,” he said, looking across the Christmas center. “Where the kids are happy.”