Rarely has Major Wilma Mason seen so great a need for community assistance in her more than 30 years with The Salvation Army.
The number of Charlotte area children who will receive gifts through The Salvation Army’s angel tree program increased by 24% from last year. That’s largely due to the tough economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a scary number,” Mason said, referring to the more than 8,000 children that The Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte expects to provide gifts through the generosity of thousands of individual donors across the region. That’s up from over 6,500 children a year ago, she said.
“People are simply saying, with medical bills going up because of being involved with COVID, or family being involved with COVID, loss of work, being furloughed, hours being cut,” that they need the help, Mason said. “It’s just really affected a large population of our community.
“And we’re having people sign up that never would have dreamed that they would have needed to ask for help,” she said. “That’s a big ask for some people. It really just is.”
Empty Stocking Fund
In all, 8,092 children from 3,691 families are registered to receive toys and clothes through the angel tree program, which matches children in need with anonymous donors who buy the gifts. Some 1,737 senior citizens will also receive gift cards they can use to buy whatever they need — that’s a 12% increase for seniors from last year.
And 812 gift cards will be distributed to agencies serving foster children and children and adults with disabilities.
The angel tree program is one of The Salvation Army’s most popular programs. In cases where donors don’t step up, Charlotte Observer readers cover the expense by giving to the Empty Stocking Fund.
Last year, Observer readers donated more than $156,000 to the Empty Stocking Fund, which the Observer has sponsored since about 1920.
All registered families also will receive food boxes courtesy of the Empty Stocking Fund.
Because of COVID-19, The Salvation Army expects fewer people will participate in the angel tree program, despite the much greater need for it, spokesman Brent Rinehart said.
“That’s why the Empty Stocking Fund is really so critical, and especially this year,” he said. “With those funds, that’s what gives us the ability to purchase toys that we can then make sure every family that comes to us is being served.”
Added Mason, “When a mom comes or a dad comes or grandma comes to pick up toys, as far as (they are) concerned, every one of (their) children was adopted — because they were, through the funds that are donated by the kindness of the community.”
COVID-19 changed everything
Mason and her husband, Todd, became the area commanders of the local Salvation Army on Father’s Day, June 21.
They were married in 2001 and served the last eight years in Atlanta, including teaching at a Salvation Army seminary and working at the 15-state Salvation Army Southern territory headquarters. They previously served in Augusta, Ga., where they oversaw construction of The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center.
In Charlotte, the Masons oversee all Salvation Army programs and operations, including the Center of Hope shelter for women and children, and the eight Salvation Army Boys and Girls Clubs.
The coronavirus pandemic “has shifted everything we have ever thought about,” Wilma Mason said in her recent Zoom interview with the Observer. “This is my 33rd Christmas (as a Salvation Army officer). And as a kid, I worked at the angel trees and toy centers in the Salvation Army church I attended for years” in Fort Myers, Fla.
“This is the first time I have ever witnessed such a shift in how we do things, just so we could do what we needed to do.”
The Christmas program, for instance, required a rented location this year with a large parking lot, Mason said, explaining how The Salvation Army settled on a former Office Depot site at 8658 J.W. Clay Blvd. in the University area.
To prevent spread of the coronavirus, volunteers will take the gifts to the families’ cars, putting them in their trunks or seats, she said. This year, families applied online instead of in-person at the Christmas center.
Gone will be the handshakes and hugs, according to Mason
“But you know what, we can certainly let them know The Salvation Army and Empty Stocking Fund are there to support them,” she said. “Most people will look back on this and say this was the hardest Christmas they ever made it through.”
How to donate
To donate to the Empty Stocking Fund online: EmptyStockingFundCLT.org.
To donate by mail, send checks to: The Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte, P.O. Box 31128, Charlotte, NC 28231. Make checks payable to The Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte and write “Empty Stocking Fund” in the memo line.
Questions concerning your donation? Call 704-716-2769.
We’ll publish all donors’ names.