Empty Stocking Fund

Charlotte father of 3 to be Santa for 50

If you can imagine a man spending seven hours shopping at a South Tryon Street Walmart in December, you’ll understand how seriously Stephen Ratcliffe of Charlotte takes his Christmas spirit.

In that span, he and a dozen co-workers from Northwestern Mutual filled 15 carts with toys and rounded up 25 bikes. It took them an hour to check out with the help of 10 Walmart employees, and the bill was $7,500.

And Ratcliffe, 36, will never meet any of the children who will open those gifts on Christmas. All 50 are enrolled in a Salvation Army program that relies heavily on donors like Ratcliffe to play Santa.

Last year, 7,800 Charlotteans accepted that responsibility, which is both impressive and disappointing since 12,000 kids were enrolled. The Salvation Army buys toys for those not “adopted,” using money donated to the Empty Stocking Fund by Observer readers.

Ratcliffe, a father of three, is among the Charlotteans who decided donating money isn’t enough. It’s a position he took more than four years ago after noticing a large number of kids had not been adopted off an Angel Tree at SouthPark mall.

In the years since, he has rallied fellow employees at Northwestern Mutual into adopting a growing number of kids’ names off the Angel Tree. The first year, it was 18. Last year, it was 40. This year, it’s 50.

The $7,500 raised came largely from checks written by 35 co-workers, he says. Among them was a man who donated $1,500, in addition to adopting seven Angels of his own to supply with gifts.

“Originally, it was thinking about the kids and their excitement. But as I’ve added more kids to my own family, I started thinking as much about the parents,” said Ratcliffe, whose children are ages 5, 3 and 1.

“It’s hard to imagine what it would feel like to not give my kids a great Christmas morning experience. I have a hard time sleeping on Christmas Eve because I’m thinking about how excited my kids are. I want other parents to feel the same.

“A 2-year-old might not remember whether or not they got toys for Christmas, because they rebound so easily. But that parent won’t be able to forget it.”

Sunday marked the final day of the Angel Tree program this year. Salvation Army officials say it will be later this week before they have an exact count of how many children were not adopted.

The number of kids registered in the program has leveled off in the past two years, yet the number of children not adopted by donors last year increased by 800. The agency isn’t sure why, but it’s bracing for the possibility of the same thing this year.

Northwestern Mutual employees are among a handful of companies who adopt names off trees in bulk. Carolinas HealthCare System is among the leaders, having adopted 763 kids this year. Other companies that adopt in bulk are Vanguard, Wells Fargo, Ally Bank and US Airways/American.

Shelley Henderson of the Salvation Army says the agency makes a pledge to parents that any child enrolled will get toys, whether they’re adopted or not.

It’s with this in mind that the Salvation Army began buying toys in bulk last spring. Additional toys will be purchased soon as the agency gets a clearer idea of how many kids weren’t adopted.

“This is a time of year that you really do see miracles in Charlotte,” Henderson says.

“We had one situation where a family showed up on the last day after losing everything in a fire. They had 9-year-old twins, a boy and girl, but we had no toys left. Then, this woman walks into the Christmas Center with two bags of toys, asking if she’s too late.”

Most would call that more of a happy coincidence than a miracle, Henderson says.

“But inside those bags were gifts for a 9-year-old boy and girl.”

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