Earline Riley is among the thousands of people who have moved to Charlotte in recent years, but she’s different from most.
It wasn’t a better job, attending college or even being close to relatives that convinced her to come here a little over a year ago.
Riley believed Charlotte would be safer for her kids than the family’s previous home of New Haven, Conn., which was recently named the second most dangerous mid-sized city in the country.
A year after their move, Riley is certain she made the right decision, but finding stable work is tougher than she expected, even with her college degree. That’s why she recently applied for help from the Salvation Army’s Christmas program.
Riley’s 7-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son are among 12,000 children registered in the program, which helps financially struggling families cope with the added expense of Christmas.
The program intends to give away 50,000 toys this season, many of them paid for by Observer readers who donate to the Empty Stocking Fund.
Salvation Army officials say many of the parents registered in the program this year are newcomers, including immigrants from around the world. Mecklenburg County gained some 84,000 residents from 2010-13, including about 10,000 foreign-born residents, U.S. Census Bureau estimates show.
Riley says they settled on North Carolina because her oldest son wanted to attend Mars Hill University next fall, 20 miles north of Asheville. However, she wasn’t quite ready to move to a town of only 2,200 people, so Charlotte became her compromise.
“We sacrificed a lot, including job security, but I wanted to shelter my kids from the crime and gangs. I didn’t want my son to die an innocent bystander at football practice,” said Riley, who left behind a job that helped former inmates rebuild their lives.
“It’s been a humbling experience starting over. I advocated for (charity) programs in New Haven, helping people connect to services, and now I’m the one asking for help from food pantries and so on. I’m working at a warehouse with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.”
Still, it’s work she’s glad to have, after being laid off from a temp job earlier this year. Riley says she has exhausted her savings, which forced her to apply for unemployment and food stamps.
Mecklenburg County’s social services department told Riley about the Salvation Army’s Christmas program. She sees the program as yet another example of what’s good about the city. Without it, she guesses her closely protected credit score would have to take a hit.
No matter how bad things get, she says, there’s no way the kids are going to do without Christmas gifts.
Riley, who is a former motivational speaker, remains upbeat about 2015 in Charlotte. She’s going back to college to get her master’s degree and is already talking to local nonprofits about getting involved in key social causes as she did in New Haven, where she worked with the Homeless Advisory Commission.
She also has a fiancee who’ll soon be moving here from Connecticut.
“I’m not discouraged,” said Riley. “I know it gets better. My plan now is to put my tree up, play holiday music and fill my house with the Christmas spirit.”