CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Cristina Bolling//The Charlotte Observer) - In years past, Joy Graham was one of the volunteers you’d see ringing the Salvation Army kettle bell outside of businesses and buying gifts for kids whose wish lists she plucked off of local “angel trees.”
But this year, after coping with a job loss, a broken engagement and settling into motherhood with two nephews she had adopted, it’s her own family who needs the help.
So this Christmas, fellow Charlotte residents are helping her out during the holidays: The boys, Jahkai and Kinrick are two of about 6,542 children registered to receive toys and clothes through the Salvation Army’s angel tree program, which matches children in need with anonymous donors who buy the gifts.
Some 1,547 senior citizens will also receive gifts this Christmas. And 925 gift cards will be distributed to agencies serving foster children and children and adults with disabilities.
In cases where donors don’t step up, Charlotte Observer readers cover the expense by giving to the Empty Stocking Fund. Money raised by last year’s Empty Stocking Fund allowed the Salvation Army to purchase 11,541 toys and 590 gifts for low-income seniors, in addition to the 925 gift cards.
For Graham, being on the receiving end is humbling, but she’s grateful that it means a more joyous Christmas for her sons.
“I never thought I’d be on the other end,” she says.
Graham’s life was comfortable three years ago. She had a good job with frequent travel as an assistant buyer at Family Dollar’s corporate headquarter, a fiance, a nice house and a household income in the six figures.
But in 2016 she learned that a niece in Delaware had lost custody of her eight kids. Two boys, who were among the oldest of the eight, had wound up in foster care.
Kinrick and Jahkai were ages 7 and 9. And as much as Graham tried to rationalize reasons for not stepping in, the tug of their plight weighed on her heart.
“I couldn’t sleep for about a month straight,” Graham said. “I knew it would be risky if I made the decision (to seek custody of them), but I just felt that they were my boys.”
She hadn’t seen Kinrick and Jahkai in years, so she decided a Christmas visit would be a good way to reconnect. With the permission of their social worker, they spent the 2016 holidays in Charlotte and their relationship with their aunt clicked.
“They were so excited to be reacquainted with family,” Graham said.
After three more in-person visits, Graham was able to start the formal path to adoption. In June 2017, the boys moved to Charlotte for good, and settled into the home Graham shared with her then-fiance.
The transition was tough at times, but the boys were sweet and loving, and adjusted well to their new schools and city.
But Graham faced some serious challenges in addition to suddenly becoming a mom of two.
Her fiance broke off their relationship, uncomfortable with the idea of being an instant dad. Graham was laid off from her job at Family Dollar, and she and the boys had to move from their comfortable home into a small two-bedroom apartment.
NEW TRADITIONS, DREAMS
This Christmas will only be their fourth as a family, but they already have traditions in place: drinking cocoa and decorating a live tree the day after Thanksgiving. Opening two gifts apiece on Christmas Eve is another tradition they share.
Things are also looking up on the financial front. Graham recently started a new job in customer service at Duke Energy.
And although she says the pay is far less than what she previously earned, it’s in the University area and close to home with good healthcare and other benefits. She’s hoping to eventually save up to buy a house — hopefully one in which her sons can have their own rooms.
At Duke Energy, Graham is learning to help customers set up new accounts, and she hears tales of heartache on the phone that resonate with what she’s gone through.
“I’m one (who) has had my power cut off,” Graham said, “so I’m liking to be able to give people compassion when they need it.”
Both boys are musicians: 10-year-old Kinrick plays the trumpet and 12-year-old Jahkai plays clarinet.
Graham is proud of the young men they’re becoming. She loves their Sundays together, their “family days,” when they take time to do something fun like going to the movies, bowling or heading to Freedom Park to feed the ducks.
Jahkai makes good grades in his honors classes and is helpful around the house.
Kinrick is Graham’s “protector,” and is into anime, Korean culture, Legos and sports.
Both boys want a Nintendo PS4 game system, and Graham is trying to win a promotion at work that has the system as its payoff.
“I say all the time that I’m more blessed than them,” Graham says. “I felt like something was missing, but I didn’t know what. God has a way of knowing what we need even when we don’t — even through the hard times.
“At first, they called me ‘Aunt Joy,’ ” she says “Now, they’ve started to call me mom.”
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.