Denis Skatkov is an example of Charlotte’s future: an immigrant who speaks and writes two languages fluently, with a college degree in computer technology and children who were born in the United States.
The family of five has faced some setbacks of late, however. A genetic condition led to Russian-born Skatkov having three heart attacks since 2012. The medical bills for seven heart stents are further compounded by lost work, he says.
It would be a problem any time of year, but Christmas is just days away, and Skatkov has three boys – ages 4, 5 and 6 – who believe in Grandpa Frost, a Russian version of Santa Claus who comes on New Year’s Eve.
Skatkov, 33, has turned to the Salvation Army’s Christmas program for help, a first for the family that moved to Charlotte just two years ago.
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The program provides toys for low-income children, most of them paid for by donations by Observer readers to the Empty Stocking Fund.
“It’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to accept the idea that you need help to give your kids things they want,” says Skatkov, who was brought to the United States from Russia at age 10 by his parents.
“I guess I feel like I should be the one putting those gifts under the Christmas tree. But sometimes you have to swallow that pride and do what’s best for your wife and your kids.”
The oldest of the boys has disabilities due to being born premature, and he’s unable to speak.
Skatkov became a naturalized citizen in 1998. He and his wife, Crystal, 28, have been married for seven years and moved to Charlotte from Kentucky after friends told him work might be easy to find here. His health has been a consistent problem, however, and he was involved in a motorcycle accident in 2013.
His parents, who live in Michigan, are helping them with some bills.
Despite the inability to find work, he likes the spirit of kindness and patience of people in Charlotte compared with where he lived in the North as a boy (Detroit). He still remembers enough about Russia to know how good Americans have it.
“I was raised at a time when religion was illegal (in Russia),” he recalls, noting his parents were Jewish and proud of it. “Religion was all done underground. People would gather illegally to pray and practice any kind of religion. And if they were caught, they could go to jail. For that reason, I respect whatever religion a person comes here to practice.”
Skatkov found out about the Salvation Army Christmas program while exhibiting his own version of Southern hospitality. He was in a department store and overheard an immigrant family from Belarus struggling to explain something to a clerk. He realized they were speaking Russian and stepped up to help. They are now friends.
That family had been in Charlotte less than a year and is part of a burgeoning immigrant population. More than 11,000 of the city’s 114,000 immigrants are from Europe, one-third of them from Eastern Bloc countries such as Serbia, Moldova, Poland, Russia, Romania and Ukraine.
Many are struggling financially while they try to re-establish their lives in a new country. Dozens have signed up for help from the Salvation Army this year.
Immigrants from Central America and South America, some here legally and some not, are also enrolled in the Salvation Army Christmas program, which makes a point of not penalizing children whose families might be in the country without permission.
Skatkov’s boys – Mark, Dominic, and Kaiden – have simple desires for Christmas, he says. They all want Legos, lots and lots of Legos.
“My boys are kind of old fashioned. They have old hearts. They don’t want electronic stuff and all that new technology. They like bikes, four wheelers and anything you can ride outside,” he says.
“They also like watching old movies and cartoons I grew up with. We’ll watch that old movie ‘The Goonies’ together, and they’ll say, ‘Dad, that is so cool!’ It makes me feel good.”
Skatkov says he already received his gift. Earlier this month, he swears he heard his oldest son say, “I love you,” which is probably the most repeated phrase in their household, he says.
“My reaction? I giggled and told him, ‘Thank you.’ ”
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: $261,540