One of the largest acts of community goodwill in the Southeast will play out in Charlotte over the next 25 days, though few if any of the givers will actually meet the people they help.
The climax will be 12,200 needy children finding toys from Santa under a tree on Dec. 25. Gifts also will go to 1,400 seniors in the community, along with 2,250 inmates serving time in local jails on Christmas.
All the credit will go to Charlottes Salvation Army, but the agency says a more telling number is the tally of volunteers and donors who drive every aspect of the three-decades-old Christmas Center program.
An estimated 44,000 people will help out this year, including dozens of congregations, corporate employee groups and neighborhood associations. Even that number doesnt include the thousands who drop donations into red kettles outside area stores.
Many people will donate toys, but many more will stuff stockings, bag gifts for delivery, put bikes together, stage mass shopping sprees or host fundraisers.
Still others will give money via the Empty Stocking Fund, a community campaign sponsored by The Charlotte Observer that buys toys for the hundreds of children whose names were not picked off Angel Trees.
Every year, I find out something we never knew about the lengths people will go to for the success of this program, and each story involves someone who was a hero in some small way, says Lindsay Duncan, Christmas events coordinator for the Salvation Army. It amazes me how you can ask the people of this city to help, and they will jump at the opportunity.
An example: Last year, the Christmas Center made a last-minute plea for rubber ducks to stuff the stockings of small children. Within two days, 1,600 ducks were brought to the Christmas Center by Charlotteans whod cleaned out stores across Charlotte.
Days later, they were still coming, Duncan says.
I would say we got thousands. It was like manna from heaven.
My turn to help
Michelle Boyd of Charlotte is among the 44,000 participating this year, and shell be both a toy donor and a volunteer at the Christmas Center.
Boyd, 39, says she feels indebted, having been helped by a such a program when she was 10. It happened after her father abandoned the family, leaving her mother alone to raise three kids, she says.
I remember my mom taking us to a store that year and asking us to write down what we wanted for Christmas, but I knew she didnt have any money. I finally just stopped talking, Boyd recalls.
But then Christmas came, and these strangers came to our house, bringing in load after load of toys. It was the best Christmas ever, and thats something you cant repay. All you can do is hope to do the same for someone else.
Its with that in mind that she and her two daughters, Cameron and Kennedy, went shopping last week at the Target on Albemarle Road, where they spent nearly $300 buying gifts for two children they adopted off an Angel Tree.
Youre going to be blessed, Target employee Rosalind Daniels told Boyd, after learning it was a shopping spree for Angel Tree children.
I already have been blessed, Boyd told her. Now, its my turn to bless someone else.
Boyd works for Carolinas HealthCare System, which is the single biggest supplier of volunteers to the Christmas program: 500 people working 600 hours at jobs that include registering parents and distributing toys.
Last year, Carolinas HealthCare employees also bought gifts for 1,300 children and seniors and stuffed 1,000 stockings, officials said.
Bank of America is not far behind with 400 employees volunteering.
Meera Cirian, a senior vice president with the bank, is another donor who has assumed a personal responsibility for the success of the Christmas Center. She and her husband, Steve, host large neighborhood parties, where guests adopt children off Angel Trees.
This all started when I happened to see a tree with a ton of Angels still left on it just before Christmas. It made me sad, Cirian recalls. I told my husband, and he said: Well, go down and get them all. So I did.
When other members of her family heard, they asked whether they could join in and it snowballed, she says.
The neighborhood parties began in 2006 and now result in gifts for as many as 40 children per year, she says.
We see around us that people are losing their jobs, their homes, and we feel blessed, Cirian says. I have this image of a 4-year-old waking up to nothing under a tree on Christmas and it gives me the shivers. I want to stop that from happening.
All told, 24,722 people will be helped by the Salvation Armys various Christmas programs.
Most of the 12,200 kids getting toys are between ages 5 and 7, and girls will be the majority. About 1,100 kids wont be picked off Angel Trees by donors, so their toys will be purchased through the Empty Stocking Fund.
This year, the agency made a big change: It isnt including kids ages 13 and 14 because theyre more demanding and donors typically had trouble picking age-appropriate gifts. With no program to help teens, Salvation Army officials say they hope providing gifts for younger kids will free up parents to spend money on the older ones.
That age group accounted for about 2,500 kids last year, but officials have noticed that eliminating them did not reduce the number of children being helped this year. Salvation Army officials see that as a sign that more families are struggling.
The number of seniors enrolled in the Silver Bells program has also risen by almost 600 names to more than 1,400, officials said. All have been adopted by sponsors.
Perhaps the least known of the agencys holiday programs is one that supplies a gift to each inmate in Mecklenburg County jails on Christmas: a single pair of white socks, minus the staples.
Chaplain Wayne Dennis of the Mecklenburg County Sheriffs Office says the gift is small but could have a big impact.
Sometimes, the littlest things in life can be a jewel to someone who has lost hope, he says. Somebody was thinking about them out there. Somebody cared.
Maj. Kay Lancaster of the Salvation Army says that is the essence of what makes thousands of people relate to the Christmas program.
We all want to believe that somebody cares, she says, even if its somebody we dont know and may never meet.
Lancaster says she speaks from experience, having been helped multiple years as a child by a Salvation Army Christmas program.
Her father had suffered a paralyzing stroke, leaving her mother in charge of keeping the family of five together and under one roof.
Lancaster, an associate area commander for Charlottes Salvation Army, believes the program is a light at the end of the tunnel for families who have slowly watched their lives unravel during the economic downturn.
And its not just about giving them toys, Lancaster says.
Parents will do whatever it takes for their kids at Christmas. Donors who give toys are essentially keeping those parents from dipping into money intended for January rent payments and utility bills.
Gift distribution starts at 8 a.m. Dec. 18, with a single rule: Children must be kept out of the building, so they might still believe in Santa.
The staff has come to expect plenty of heartbreaking stories, including parents who wait too late to seek help, and donors who show up suddenly to perform last-minute acts of kindness.
We had a woman come last year, and all I could find in the building was canned goods and toiletries, leftover stuff, but she was thrilled to get them, says Duncan, the Salvation Armys Christmas program coordinator.
But for every moment like that, there are thousands more where parents cry for joy that their children end up with memories that last a lifetime, she says.
We all had those magical moments when we were little, and what I tell people is that you are creating a little of that, creating magic.