Empty Stocking Fund

Navy veteran builds new life for family in Charlotte

Dontavius Jones says there’s nothing worse than having to go home and tell your wife you got laid off from a job.

Jones, 32, had to do that more than once after he got out of the Navy in 2010, and he finally got fed up with it in August.

That’s when he and his wife, Elsie, decided to pack only what they could fit into their 2003 Ford Explorer and move from his home state of Florida to Charlotte, which statistics show is an increasingly popular destination for military veterans.

Jones is a perfect example of why they’re coming, too. In the past four months, he has found a good job, an affordable apartment in the University City area and is now enrolled in college for a degree in information technology.

Everything he hoped for is going as planned, with one exception: Christmas.

When you’re living in a home with little furniture – a TV stand and some chairs – buying toys for three kids is an extravagance, he says.

That’s why the family has turned to the Salvation Army for help getting toys for their two youngest, 7-year-old Alaysiah and 4-year-old Cameron. Their third child, Audrey, is too old for the program at age 13.

The Salvation Army has pledged to provide 50,000 toys this year to nearly 12,000 children. Money for many of the toys will come from Observer readers who donate to the Empty Stocking Fund.

Jones is part of a wave of 10,000 veterans who have moved to the area in 2013-14, as the Department of Defense draws down the nation’s armed forces, experts say.

Charlotte is among a handful of “magnet cities” veterans are flocking to in hopes of higher paying jobs and a lower cost of living. In all, there are 148,000 veterans in the Charlotte area, statistics show.

The influx prompted community leaders to create Charlotte Bridge Home, a nonprofit that works with 60 agencies to connect vets to services, jobs and peers for support. The organization, which has assisted 700 vets this year, says many of those coming to Charlotte have stories similar to Jones’.

He served eight years in the Navy, including two deployments as a hospital corpsman aboard the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Jones says he decided to leave the military in 2010 because he felt he was missing key years in his kids’ lives.

The family moved from Virginia back to his home state of Florida, but immediately faced one challenge after another, including exorbitant rent and utility bills. Jones said they picked Charlotte after hearing other Navy vets describe it as a city of great opportunity.

“We were fed up and on the verge of losing yet another home in Florida, so we decided ‘Let’s go,’ ” Jones said.

It took him just three weeks (and 30 applications) to get a part-time job delivering appliances, and he was promoted to full-time not long after. Elsie, 34, found a job of her own three weeks ago that allows her to work from home.

“We are starting over from nothing, but the kids aren’t whining and crying ‘I want a bed,’ ” Jones said. “I got some strong kids. My wife is strong, too. Some women would lose it. Mine stuck by me.

“She’s everything a man could ask for in a woman.”

He’s now thinking about buying a home and staying in Charlotte long term. His only complaint is the weather: “It changes every hour, from cold to warm and back to cold.”

It was his wife who found out about the Salvation Army Christmas program online and registered the children to get toys. The agency works to get donors to “adopt” kids’ names off Angel Trees at malls. Those not picked will have their toys purchased by the Salvation Army, using donated money. Typically, half the names on trees are not adopted.

Elsie Jones says her kids’ toys and bikes are among the many things they had to leave in Florida.

It’s clear she thinks just as highly of her husband as he does of her. But it’s the kids who are on her mind in these days leading up to Christmas.

“We are trying to keep the burden of this move from falling too heavily on our children,” she said. “I’m going to try my best to keep them from missing out on Christmas. I want to see those smiles that morning, just like every other parent.”

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