CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kobe is 3 years old and wants to be a dinosaur when he grows up. His sister, 5-year-old Aja, intends to be a princess.
It’s the kind of childhood fantasy their mother has encouraged, given they have faced a reality far more grim in these final days before Christmas.
There’s no money for Christmas gifts, said their mom Stephanie Boyd, and it’s possible that they’ll be without a home in February.
Boyd, who has epilepsy, said she had hit rock bottom on Wednesday, when she called Charlotte’s Salvation Army to beg for toys from its Christmas Bureau – two months past the registration deadline.
The agency’s director of communications, Shelley Henderson, picked up the phone.
“I heard this little voice say, ‘I need help for my kids,’ ” recalled Henderson.
Then she heard Boyd begin to cry.
“She sounded helpless. She sounded like she needed something good to happen,” Henderson said.
When the two met for the first time on Friday, 28-year-old Boyd cried again but for entirely different reasons.
Henderson handed her a free bag of toys and two red Christmas stockings stuffed with goodies, paid for in part by the Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund.
She also gave Boyd all the details necessary to be admitted into the Salvation Army shelter for women and children.
Boyd called Henderson “an angel” and she marveled at the bureau, which gave free toys to nearly 14,000 needy children this year.
“It’s amazing,” Boyd said, as she watched volunteers pass out donated toys on Friday.
“I can’t believe so many people have this big of a heart. You hear about all the anger and hatred in the world these days, and then you see this and realize that there are people who still care about strangers.”
Boyd added that she’s typically on the donating end when it comes to the needy, but this year has been different.
She had to take a leave of absence from her job at a restaurant, due to worsening seizures, and then her system began rejecting the medication. The result of the seizures was broken teeth and a busted nose, she said.
Family helped with rent when they could, but Boyd said her father is financially tapped out.
“I’ve been living with a friend whose lease is ending and I have to find somewhere else to live,” she said. “But I have no place else to go.”
Henderson was so moved by Boyd’s predicament that she pledged to buy toys if none could be found at the Christmas Bureau. That’s because Henderson has family members of her own who suffer with epilepsy.
Salvation Army officials say the final days of the Christmas Bureau are always a time when phones ring with desperate mothers who either just fell on hard times or only recently learned they could get help. Registration ended in October.
Lindsay Duncan, who coordinates the agency’s Christmas Events, said it becomes tough to answer the phone. The saddest of the calls include families whose gifts were stolen or families who have taken in children due to the death of a parent, she said.
“One lady cried into the phone for a good two or three minutes, and then she said, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve never had to make a call like this before,’ ” Duncan said.
“Those are the ones you most want to help: The ones who’ve never needed help before and don’t know where to go. It takes an emotional toll on us at times. There’s just so much need.”
More than 3,500 unsung heroes kept the operation going this year. That includes those who rang bells at red kettles, donors who “adopted” kids off Angel Trees and communities like the Foxcroft neighborhood that have been collectively stuffing Christmas stockings with goodies for the bureau for years.
Then there’s The Spokes Group, which has purchased and given away more than 25,000 bikes and helmets over the past 19 years.
Donors also come with sad stories, including gifts given in memory of a deceased child, Duncan said.
“We had one lady this year at the bureau who was bawling uncontrollably as she put her (donated) toys into a bag,” she said. “She had recently lost a child, a baby, so she purchased gifts for a child of that age. Her husband just stood there, doing the best he could to support her.”
Recipients like Boyd say such acts of kindness do more than just make kids happy on Christmas. She said she came to the agency prepared to beg and feeling like a failure as a mother. Getting the gifts eased those worries.
“I’m just grateful right now that so many people in Charlotte are so selfless that they would do all this for someone else’s kids.”