The line for Santa’s toy shop forms outside this south Charlotte warehouse

Opening day at Salvation Army's Christmas Store

Opening day at the Salvation Army Christmas Center where families who participated in the Angel Tree program picked up toys for their children.
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Opening day at the Salvation Army Christmas Center where families who participated in the Angel Tree program picked up toys for their children.

Desiree Brannon is a loving mother who appears to have pulled off one of the year’s sweetest cons in Charlotte.

She says she successfully convinced her three daughters – ages 8, 6 and 5 – that their time in a homeless shelter this summer was a vacation.

If a woman can do that, pretending to be Santa should be a breeze.

Yet cash-strapped Brannon admits she had begun doubting herself, until she arrived early Thursday at the Salvation Army’s Christmas Center in south Charlotte.

In the span of 2 minutes, she was handed a 55-gallon bag of toys, three bikes, three stockings stuffed with surprises, and a box filled with all the makings of a complete Christmas dinner.

Brannon, who moved here in August from Raleigh, was stunned.

“Praise God!” shouted Brannon, 40, as the gifts began to multiply in front of her. “I didn’t know how I was going to be able to handle Christmas and now here I am, with my girls getting everything they wished for. For a woman just getting started in Charlotte, this is a miracle.”

It was a scene repeated over and over Thursday, during the first day of what has become one of the largest free toy distribution affairs on the East Coast.

The Salvation Army expects to provide Christmas toys for 10,400 children this year, at a rate of 200 families per hour. It will take four days and require the help of more than 2,000 volunteers, many of them recruited from major community employers such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Duke Energy and Carolinas Health Care.

As for the anonymous donors who supplied the toys, the Salvation Army says preliminary numbers are up this year, by about 500 donors. The program has also seen an increase in donated bikes (up by almost 300), which is the most common item on most children’s Christmas list.

In cases where donors don’t adopt children, Observer readers will cover the cost by donating to the Empty Stocking Fund, a safety net for last-minute toy shopping.

A box of food – containing the makings of a Christmas dinner – was added to the program this year as part of a Salvation Army effort to bring hope to parents who are struggling with rising housing costs and stagnant wages. The food is coming from Second Harvest Food Bank.

The first person in line Thursday illustrated the struggle Charlotte’s low-income families are facing. Patricia Sams, 60, came not to get toys for her children or grandchildren, but for a neighbor who couldn’t take time off from her job cleaning hotel rooms.

Sams showed up two hours early, at 6:30 a.m., and stood in temperatures in the 30s.

“I didn’t get the message from her till 5:30 this morning, but I understand perfectly that a few extra hours at work means another pair of socks for the kids or groceries,” said Sams. “You can’t pass that up when you’re struggling. I’ve been in that situation where every penny counts. Women do whatever it takes, and other women understand.”

All 5,000 families in the program this year had to prove they are in financial need. This includes some who lost jobs or were forced to quit because of their health.

Many in the program are newcomers such as Brannon, a certified nurse’s assistant who moved here with dreams of a better job. Her plan was to live off her 2015 income tax refund until a new job could be secured. But when that took longer than expected, she and her daughters ended up at the Center of Hope shelter for women and children.

She now has a full-time job at a hospital and an apartment, suggesting her gamble is paying off.

“I didn’t want my girls to know we were living in a hotel or a shelter, so I told them it was like camp,” says Brannon. “There was a big dining hall, they got to sleep in bunk beds around other kids, and they could wear flip flops in the shower. Some days, I would take a sheet to the park and we would have a picnic.”

It’s possible they started doubting her abilities as a mother, she says, but with any luck Christmas will restore their faith.

“This is going to be the best Christmas they’ve ever had,” she says.

The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. In recent years, Observer readers have contributed an average of nearly $370,000 annually 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. Questions about your donation: 704-358-5520. For helping families: 704-714-4725.