Stephen Ratcliffe is not a big fan of shopping, but you wouldn’t have known that this week, when he orchestrated a $16,000 buying spree at the Walmart on South Tryon Street.
Starting at 8:30 a.m., he and nearly 20 friends spent seven hours combing the store, filling carts with hundreds of toys and 70 bikes. It took two hours to check out the nearly 40 carts.
This marks the fifth year Ratcliffe, 37, has led such a blitz, as part of a push by average Charlotteans to do something extra for the Salvation Army’s annual Angel Tree Christmas program.
The first year, Ratcliffe and his co-workers at Northwestern Mutual raised enough money to get toys for 18 low income children enrolled in the Salvation Army’s program. Last year, it was 50. This year, it more than doubled to 110 kids.
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In all, the Salvation Army expects to give free toys to 11,360 children this year, all of them from low-income families. Most are adopted by donors in the community who pluck the children’s Christmas list off Angel Trees in local malls. Those not adopted typically get their toys purchased by Observer readers who donate to the Empty Stocking Fund.
Ratcliffe says that jump in numbers came because the group’s approach broadened to include donations from friends or relatives of Northwestern Mutual staff. The $16,000 raised this year was more than double the 2014 tally. Most of those involved are employees for Northwestern Mutual’s office in the South Park area, where Ratcliffe works. The company’s Charlotte division has 200 financial advisers serving the Carolinas and northern Georgia.
All this got started because Ratcliffe, a father of three, felt giving his money at Christmas wasn’t enough. Giving time is the bigger sacrifice, he says, so he devised a plan to donate blocks of his time if co-workers would give money.
Co-workers eventually join in on the shopping, too, including Matt Erbacher, 32, a father of two who has worked at Northwestern Mutual for 10 years. This was his third year as part of the shopping team, which went out Thursday.
“I think Stephen (Ratcliffe) has done a good job getting people to think about the deeper meaning of Christmas,” said Erbacher. “It starts with the birth of Jesus, but there’s a meaning that often gets overlooked: Helping those in need....We’re buying toys for children, but this is about taking a burden off parents who can’t provide these toys.”
The group spent an average of $140 per child, with emphasis given to clothing and shoes. Salvation Army officials say the typical donor spends about $87 per child.
Northwestern Mutual is among a handful of local companies who adopt names off Salvation Army Angel Trees in bulk. This year, Carolinas Healthcare System adopted 775 Angels in the program. Other companies that adopt in bulk include A.M. King, Alston & Bird, Ally Bank, Vanguard and Wells Fargo.
In 2014, there were 11,900 names in the Angel Tree program and 4,431 were not adopted by donors. The Salvation Army makes a pledge to supply toys for children enrolled in the program whether they are adopted or not, typically using money from the Empty Stocking Fund to fill the requests. Last year, the fund raised $374,000.
Sherrie Silverstein of Northwestern Mutual said she understands the desperation a parent might feel if they are unable to provide those gifts to a child. She has been part of Ratcliffe’s effort from the beginning.
“I’ve been enamored with the magic of Christmas since I was a little girl: That sense of wonder and anticipation,” said Silverstein, noting there’s a holiday spirit that transcends generations and status of any kind this time of year.
“It’s a time when we are all a little nicer, a little kinder, to each other.”
After the shopping was done Thursday, Ratcliffe sent an email to the volunteers and Walmart that seemed to echo her thoughts.
“The children and parents that receive these gifts live every day in poverty. They face struggles every day that most of us can’t even begin to imagine. Today, I know we delivered gifts, but what I really wanted to deliver was hope,” he wrote.
“On Christmas morning, 110 Angels are going to wake up and experience a day that will be imprinted in their memories for years to come. My wish is that they will also be imprinted with a feeling of hope…hope that if today can be a great day, then so can tomorrow…and the day after that.
“When we have hope in our lives, anything and everything is possible.”
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: $205,905