Empty Stocking Fund

Charlotte grandmother faces Christmas with 2 teens, 3 grandchildren

Elizabeth McNiel with her three grand kids, from left to right: Zyh’aire Surls 2, E’onne Smith, 7, and Anthony Surls, 3. Elizabeth will be going to the Salvation Army Christmas tree program to get help with toys for the kids this year.
Elizabeth McNiel with her three grand kids, from left to right: Zyh’aire Surls 2, E’onne Smith, 7, and Anthony Surls, 3. Elizabeth will be going to the Salvation Army Christmas tree program to get help with toys for the kids this year. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Elizabeth McNiel is part of a sad trend in Charlotte: A growing number of grandmothers are raising their grandchildren and going broke in the process.

McNiel took in three grandchildren, despite still having two teenaged sons of her own in the house.

Those teens, ages 16 and 18, have dealt with the growing financial hardship well, she says, agreeing to move into the garage to make room for the grandkids, who are ages 2, 3 and 7.

McNiel, 46, has a full-time job at a water testing company, but the added burden of three grandchildren prompted her to register this year with the Salvation Army’s free Christmas toy program.

Her grandchildren are among 11,300 kids age 12 and under who’ll get free toys this year, thanks in part to Observer readers who donate to the Empty Stocking Fund. Last year, the fund raised $374,000.

McNiel says she’s looking for a third job.

“I will be working until the day of my funeral, and I may have to work that day, too,” says McNiel, who does roofing in the summer months for extra money.

“I’m surviving on about $1,600 a month before taxes. I generally rob Peter to pay Paul. We do without a lot of things. But Christmas toys for babies isn’t one of those things I’d like to skip.”

Other Charlotte charities have noticed the growing number of older people taking in their grandchildren. A survey of clients released last month by Loaves & Fishes, which supports Mecklenburg County’s free food pantries, found 1 in 5 people using its food pantries are raising grandchildren.

McNiel has been raising grandchildren Zyh’aire, Anthony and E’onne for about three years. She says she fought to win guardianship after one of the children was taken by the state. Their biological mother is in Charlotte but is not part of the household or the children’s upbringing.

The grandchildren’s father is absent, emotionally and financially, McNiel says, adding that her own husband left when the youngest of their five children was just 6 months old. That was more than a decade ago. Three of those children are now in their 20s and living on their own.

“When I started fighting to get the grandkids, we ended up losing everything. I quit nursing school, we got evicted, we lost the car. We all had to share a bedroom in a duplex in Grier Heights. But my own kids never complained, and they didn’t ask for things we couldn’t afford,” she says.

“The only reason I can work now is because my son James (age 21) is handling day care of the grandkids. He has given up a lot to play daddy.”

Her son Ronnie McNiel, 24, admits being worried when his mother took in the grandchildren.

“But I remember our dad being more a hindrance than help when he was around, so she’s used to doing things by herself,” he said. Ronnie McNeil recalls his mother working up to three jobs at a time when they were kids.

“She has a very powerful personality, and when she puts her mind to getting something done, she sticks to it to the end. I thought taking on these grandkids might be too much for her, but she’s proven me wrong.”

Elizabeth McNiel says their challenges remain great, however, including needing money for a new tire. The family recently moved from their Grier Heights duplex to a three-bedroom home in Matthews, though they don’t yet have furniture to fill it. When they were evicted in 2013, they lost most of their belongings, including beds for her teen sons, she said.

McNiel expects the teens will do without Christmas gifts this year. She doesn’t have the money, and both are too old to qualify for the Salvation Army program.

“Twice a year, I schedule a time to lock myself in my room and cry,” she jokes, before getting serious.

“There’s a terrible need for grandmothers right now, and they are rising to the occasion with the grandkids. A lot of us don’t know where to go to get help. Some of us are too proud to ask. Not me. Christmas is supposed to be the best day of the year, and that’s what I want for these three babies.”

The Empty Stocking Fund

The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. Last year, readers contributed nearly $374,000 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. For questions about your donation, call 704-358-5520. For questions about helping families, call Salvation Army Donor Relations: 704-714-4725.

Total raised so far: $35,374