A generous city prepares to make magic

There’s a 9-year-old in Charlotte who’ll be celebrating Christmas this year for the first time.

It will unfold in the home of a foster family that recently took in the boy after he was found on an uptown street.

Technically, he wasn’t abandoned, but was simply left alone by a father in search of a place to relieve himself in an uptown alley. The two were homeless and living in a camp at the time, a choice some single fathers make rather than give up their kids to social services.

A passerby spotted the boy, called police and so began his introduction to a new world that in 25 days will include the magic of finding gifts from Santa Claus under a tree.

Those gifts actually will come from the Salvation Army, as part of an annual holiday program that hopes to give 50,000 toys to 12,000 low-income children this year. Much of the money for the toys will come from Observer readers who give to the Empty Stocking Fund.

Readers gave a record $300,000 last December.

“It seems like a lot of trouble to go through for one day, but it’s not about just one day,” says Shelley Henderson of the Salvation Army.

“All parents want to see a smile on their child’s face at Christmas and those with little means will go to any lengths to do that, including using their rent money, food money, power bill money.

“For the child, it’s about toys. But for the parents, this program gives hope and a feeling that, for just one day, they could get something right.”

The kick off of the 2014 Empty Stocking Fund comes just a month after a national survey published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy named Charlotte one of the 10 most generous metropolitan areas in the country.

On average, Charlotteans donate $3,346 a year to nonprofit causes. Not included in the survey is the fact that people here volunteer an average of 41 hours a year, which is higher than the state average and the national average.

In excess of 3,000 volunteers will help distribute toys, stockings and bikes during the Salvation Army’s Christmas program, starting Dec. 17.

Among the volunteers will be Stephanie Carter, 49, a woman who was a client of the program four years ago when she was divorced and laid off in the same year. Her adopted son, Cameron, is now 18, an Eagle Scout and attending Hampton University in Virginia, seeking a degree in broadcast journalism.

Carter says she was able to get her life on track after going back to school to get certification in the healthcare field, leading to a full-time job at Carolinas HealthCare System.

“Four years ago, I went from a $50,000-a-year job to pennies after I got laid off, and I try to keep that in mind when I help the Christmas program. These people may have done nothing wrong to be in the position they’re in,” said Carter, recalling she cried when volunteers handed her a bag of toys to give her son on Christmas morning.

“I helped last year, too, and I’ll never forget looking at all those mothers waiting in line. I remembered when it was me and how I had to swallow my pride. The way I see it, God won’t judge us on what we’ve got in life, but what we gave in life.”

Most of the 12,000 children in the program this year are girls between ages 6 and 8, and they represent a rapidly changing Charlotte filled with newcomers who have so far failed to find a stable life.

Salvation Army officials say some parents were so anxious to get help that they showed up the day before registration started in October and waited overnight in the parking lot of the Christmas Center.

Their stories include many scenarios, from a recently discharged veteran and his family who relocated to Charlotte with nothing but the clothes on their backs, to an immigrant couple who fled Ukraine with 12 children and little grasp of American traditions.

However, the more common story involves women who took in the children of relatives who either died or were simply too irresponsible. The result is women raising their grandchildren, sisters raising nieces and nephews, or more distant relatives taking in cousins. In some cases, the new parents never met the biological mom or dad.

Profiles of some of the families will be featured in the Observer in coming weeks, including a young veteran who lives in a home with no furniture and a woman who lost critically needed weeks of work after being severely beaten by her now ex-fiancee.

Among them is Aisha Tillman of Charlotte, who took in two nieces, ages 9 and 6. This is in addition to having a 5-year-old of her own who has epilepsy. Tillman, 28, was laid off in February and lost her home not long after. She recently moved in with her mother.

“My sister left these two children at my mom’s house one day and they just became ours,” says Tillman, who is a native of New York.

“I could never do that myself. It’s not right. Even if I didn’t know them, I’d have taken them in, because no child in need should be abandoned. They didn’t ask to be here. They are innocent.”

She realizes the three children are expecting magic on Christmas, no matter what her financial constraints. They’re talking a lot about bikes, Dora the Explorer and doll houses these days.

“The toughest part of being a single mom is knowing you have no one else to depend on,” she says. “I admit I cry in the shower sometimes. I don’t want the kids to know the stress I’m under, and that it’s tough on mommy when they want something she can’t give them.”

In the case of the 9-year-old homeless boy who was found earlier this year in uptown, his foster mother, Sheila Simpson, believes he’ll be thrilled no matter what Santa brings. But he’d love a bike.

“It’s pitiful,” she says. “He didn’t know how to bathe, how to brush his teeth, how to ride a bike, and he didn’t read well, because he and his dad went city to city.

“He’s never had Christmas in a house, so he’s a little overwhelmed by it all.”

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