Santa will keep promises to 13,701 low-income children this Christmas if the Salvation Army succeeds in pulling off what has become Charlotte's biggest annual holiday miracle.

Maj. Todd Hawks, who leads the agency, said if you add parents, the number helped by the Christmas Bureau is closer to 30,000.

That's intimidating, he admits, but not nearly as intimidating as the idea that the Salvation Army doesn't have the $2 million needed to pull off the Christmas program.

Instead, the agency is relying on donors - thousands upon thousands - to adopt families for help or provide donations so the toys can be purchased.
It's the biggest such program in the Carolinas, yet Hawks knows the bureau's role is more than a toy bonanza.

As a boy, his family sought help two years in a row from a similar program, and Hawks maintains the simple gifts he got (gloves, a sweatshirt and hard candy) served a higher purpose.
The Christmas Bureau is our big chance as a community, he says, to help children who don't see themselves as poor and still believe their life holds endless possibilities.

Twenty years from now, they won't likely recall the current economic downturn.
Instead, they'll remember that first bike, some special toy or the feeling of joy and anticipation leading up to Christmas morning.
He knows, because that's what he remembers most about Christmas.
Joy and anticipation.

Setting records

The Christmas Bureau could be called Charlotte's version of the North Pole, with about 3,000 volunteers devoting five days in mid-December to passing out toys and candy in an abandoned department store.

It will be a record year for the program, which has edged steadily toward 14,000 children in recent years.

In fact, it's been a record year for almost all the programs offered by the Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte.

Thrift store sales are up, the Boys & Girls Clubs are helping more low-income kids and the Center of Hope shelter for women and children is well over capacity.
It's been like this since Hawks came to Charlotte in 2008.

Before even unpacking all his stuff, he was asked to attend a meeting of charity leaders concerned about a growing scandal involving benefits paid to United Way's executive director.

Then there was an outbreak of bedbugs at the Center of Hope a few weeks later, followed by a warning from United Way that it might have to cut allocations to its member charities by up to 50 percent. That was very scary for everybody, he said.

The Salvation Army ended up with a projected $750,000 budget gap for the 2009-10 year, but avoided making cuts to services with help from community initiatives like the Critical Need Response Fund.

There have been no cuts to any of its services during the recession, Hawks said.

That's because his staff realized early on it needed to find creative ways to save money. They started by experimenting with the simple, common sense approach that had proved so successful by the Christmas Bureau.

When all else fails, just ask average people to help.

The requests started small, with congregations being recruited to take in a few homeless people for a week at a time. The ideas got progressively bigger from there, resulting in the Salvation Army partnering with other charities and government agencies to launch new programs.

All proved successful, keeping hundreds of homeless families off the streets.

In the process, Charlotte's Salvation Army earned a reputation for innovation that other Salvation Army commands seek to imitate.

Born to it

Hawks, 54, and his three brothers were raised among the working poor by parents who earned just enough money for the essentials.

Their duplex sat adjacent to a Salvation Army playground on the west side of Hagerstown, Md., a neighborhood Hawks said can be described politely as low income ... or bluntly as rough.

Salvation Army staffers from the Maryland program recalled in interviews that young Hawks was rebellious and rowdy.

An example includes the day he showed up for church services at the Salvation Army wearing overalls and no shirt.

I remember saying: 'Is this the best you can do?' said Lt. Col. Mark Bell, who worked at the Salvation Army Hawks frequented as a boy.

I told him to go home and put on a shirt. It was my first day of meeting the young people, and I think he was trying to see how far he could push me.

Bell eventually became a good friend and mentor, inspiring Hawks to commit himself to the Salvation Army's mission at age 18. Since then, Hawks has worked for the organization in eight states.

There was a nonjudgmental compassion that sometimes came as a hug, other times as a lecture and sometimes in intangible forms, Hawks said. Even when I was more trouble than I was worth, the door was always open and I always felt safe.
Hawks' upbringing made him a champion for the growing numbers of poor who turn to the Salvation Army for help.

He also has experienced his share of tragedy.
One of his three brothers remains in prison for addiction-related crimes. His first wife, Kathy, died of cancer as they approached their 26th anniversary. And their son, Aaron, died in a car wreck at age 18. He would have been 30 this year.

Hawks and his wife, Bethany, have three children, ages 3, 5 and nine weeks.
Despite being busy every night with the holiday programs, Hawks said he still gets home every night to have dinner with his family and read to the two oldest boys before they go to sleep.

Maintaining dignity

If all goes as planned, the Christmas Bureau will begin distributing gifts Dec. 16, with 200 families going through each hour.

It will take place in an old Walmart building on Arrowood Road, with adults arriving in shifts to get their gifts assembly-line style.

Children will not be allowed inside, because that would spoil the sense of joy and anticipation Hawks recalls so fondly.

Hawks will be there part of the time, and he'll surely be reminded of what his late mother, Peggy Hawks, did all those years ago for her four boys.

My mom was a hardworking, proud woman, and it was difficult for her to ask for help - but the needs of her kids came first, he said.

That's why I want to make sure all the parents who come to us for help have a chance to leave with their dignity and their pride intact.

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