Small paycheck and health troubles weigh on Charlotte family

Charrie Clark says she had two children who were stillborn and another survived only to be diagnosed with cancer of the eye at age 2.

Now, the single mom is taking care of her 62-year-old mother, who had a stroke and whose kidneys are failing.

Clark, 40, is among the many working parents in Charlotte who can’t afford luxuries, even if that luxury is Christmas for her children. She, like many working poor, is feeling the strain of her employer curbing workers to less than 40 hours a week – sometimes far less.

That has forced Clark, a restaurant manager, to join the 5,000-plus parents who have asked the Salvation Army’s Christmas Center to help supply toys for their children this year. Many of the toys will be paid for by Observer readers, through donations to the Empty Stocking Fund.

This year, nearly 12,000 children are expected to get help.

Clark has three girls registered in the program: one age 7 and twins, age 5. (Two additional children are considered too old for the program.) The girls’ father continues to help her financially, she says, but money will remain tight until she gets more hours at work.

It’s 5-year-old Emoni, one of the twins, who has a prosthetic eye.

Clark describes Emoni as a “tomboy who still wants to conquer the world,” despite remaining unclear on what exactly happened to her eye. For lack of a more easily understood explanation, Clark has told her that there is both a Tooth Fairy and an Eye Fairy. The latter took her eye one night, mom says.

The true culprit is retinoblastoma, a fast-growing malignant tumor of the eye that is often more serious for children of lower socioeconomic status because early detection is harder. The cancer is in remission, but Clark remains at a heightened state of alert.

“They told me it was a dead eye and they were going to have to take it out before it spread,” recalls Clark. “It was like there was a stone in my throat and I couldn’t swallow. I told them: ‘No, not my baby’s eyes. Anything but that.’ It took a year before I could talk about it without crying.”

This is not the first tough Christmas for the family. It was only last January that Clark found her current job, too late to help her buy gifts.

The family has made an art form of living inexpensively, nixing comforts such as cable TV and even their heat. Some months, they didn’t have the rent money, but fellow Charlotteans have stepped up and helped when she needed it most.

This includes envelopes of money that mysteriously appeared to pay for kerosene heaters, or to cover her overdue rent.

Clark suspects the money is from a church congregation that took up collections. Or it could be from some extremely nice person who wishes to remain anonymous. Either way, it’s continued proof to her of miracles and the bigger meaning of Christmas.

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