Dominique Johnson beamed as she carried a tiny ice-blue Frozen bicycle across the Salvation Army Christmas Center on Friday morning, excited by the thought of how her daughter, Ashley, will react when she sees it on Christmas morning.
“This is the one thing she wanted,” Johnson said, smiling.
Money is tight in Johnson’s South Charlotte household, so she was thrilled that a Salvation Army Angel Tree donor made her daughter’s wish come true, along with supplying other Christmas gifts for Ashley and Johnson’s 1-year-old son, Jonathan.
Johnson’s children will be among the more than 7,300 Charlotte-area children who will receive presents under the tree this Christmas thanks to the Salvation Army and the Charlotte Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund.
Until Tuesday, parents of those children who are registered with the Salvation Army will come to collect their children’s toys, a backpack stuffed with goodies, and a box of food.
The Empty Stocking Fund raises money to purchase toys for children whose “angel cards” were not plucked from angel trees or whose gifts were not brought in by donors.
The fund also goes to purchase backpacks, filled with such items as hats, mittens and toothpaste — every child in the program receives a backpack — as well as gift cards and gifts for approximately 1,000 seniors in need. All families also receive a box of food from Second Harvest Food Bank that’s paid for by the Empty Stocking Fund.
City leaders including Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, police chief Kerr Putney and County Commissioner Pat Cotham were on hand Friday morning for the ceremonial start to the toy distribution at the Christmas Center, located in a former Wal-Mart off East Arrowood Road. The facility is a sea of thousands of large white plastic bags, thousands of bicycles all in rows, and pallets of new backpacks.
On Friday morning, parents who hadn’t already gotten children’s bicycles among their donors’ gifts got to spin a large prize wheel for the chance to win one. Those bicycles came courtesy of Charlotte-based nonprofit Spokes Group, which donated 2,025 — plus helmets — to the Salvation Army this year. This is the charity’s 25th year of providing bicycles to families in need at Christmas.
Volunteers loaded parents’ shopping carts with the bags bearing their children’s names, and checked the air pressure of bicycle tires before sending parents on their way.
This year, according to the Salvation Army, fewer families applied for help at Christmas. Last year, the organization served 10,700 children, compared to this year’s 7,300.
One reason for the drop may be that the charity changed its requirements to qualify for the program this year, said Brent Rinehart, communications director for the Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte. In years past, families who received Medicaid automatically qualified for the program. But this year, Medicaid was not accepted as proof of need; families needed to show that they qualified for free or reduced lunch at school, show a food stamp award letter or a 2017 tax return.
“We’re just hoping we got the most people in the hardest need,” said Salvation Army area commander Major Larry Broome.