Empty Stocking Fund

Charlotte teen mom turns to Salvation Army program for Christmas

Jasmine Bennett with her son, 1-year-old Cameron Bennett. Jasmine has enrolled for help from the Salvation Army for Christmas toys.
Jasmine Bennett with her son, 1-year-old Cameron Bennett. Jasmine has enrolled for help from the Salvation Army for Christmas toys. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Jasmine Bennett says she was 7 years old when her mother died of a heart attack, leaving her and 4-year-old sister Desiree to be raised by their father, construction worker Leroy Bennett Jr.

Bennett believes he did a great job, particularly when it came to making his two girls feel loved and important. It’s the other men in the world who have let Jasmine Bennet down.

[Empty Stocking Fund: More stories, information]

[Observer Giving Guide: What can you do to help?]

Now age 19, Bennett finds herself an unemployed single mother. Her son, 1-year-old Cameron Bennett, is among the 11,360 children enrolled in the Salvation Army’s Christmas program. The program provides toys for children from low-income families, with the help of donations from Observer readers to the Empty Stocking Fund.

She’s the first to admit single parenthood wasn’t part of the plan she had for her life, particularly at 19. But Bennett has taken full responsibility for Cameron, whom she describes as funny and easily excited by new experiences.

The boy’s father, who is 22, is not part of the boy’s life, she says, though promises have been made to help. Those promises have so far not been kept, she says.

Instead, it is her father who has stepped up in ways she never imagined. Leroy Bennett Jr. was not a man to spare the rod, nor spoil his daughters, both of whom still live under his roof. “He’s really blunt, says what’s on his mind and what’s on his mind is mostly serious,” says Jasmine Bennett.

She was already five months along when she confessed being pregnant to her father. Bennett says she had only known herself for a week, having not yet experienced morning sickness or any other symptoms.

“I sat him down and said ‘I have something to tell you.’ He asked: ‘Is it bad or good?’ I was so scared I started to cry,” says Bennett.

“I told him, and I could tell he was mad. I didn’t know if he’d kick me out and make me raise the baby by myself or what. I didn’t have a job, and I couldn’t buy clothes or food for a baby. I had nothing.”

She says she’ll never forget the words her father spoke after his anger passed: “Everything is going to be okay. We’ll get through it.”

He then put one arm around her and hugged her.

The next day, he took her to a doctor and made sure that she had everything she needed for the baby, including vitamins and medications.

Cameron is now enrolled in daycare so Jasmine Bennett can look for work, which she says has been tough to find. She wants to be able to pay her own way in life, and is talking about going to college to be a psychologist. Her son will go to college, too, if she has her way.

The dream, at least for now, is her own house with a big yard where her boy can run and play.

“I believe my son is the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says, “because he makes me want to be a better person.”

This will be Cameron’s first real Christmas and she imagines all the lights, colors and wrapped packages will thrill him, regardless of what gifts he gets.

In the ends, she says, what will matter most is that he’s loved by someone who intends to be there no matter what.

She learned that from her father, a man who never ceases to amaze her.

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: $210,275