LUMBERTON — From a modest and random start, the Empty Stocking Fund continues 38 years later, and has raised enough money to provide gifts for tens of thousands of children in Robeson County who otherwise might have awakened to disappointment on Christmas Day.
All because of you — and some staff members at The Robesonian who in 1978 laid the foundation for the effort that preservers today.
The work begins again this week as we will begin accepting donations on Monday to this year’s fund. And there is a lot of work to do. Last year, all the children deemed eligible, more than 13,000, benefited from the fund, one of just a few times that has happened. This year the Department of Social Services has approved applications from families representing 1,465 children, meaning $73,250 would need to be raised to provide Christmas for them all.
You know how it works.
What you might not know is how the Empty Stocking Fund got started, so we asked Scott Bigelow, a reporter at The Robesonian in 1978, for a Christmas story.
Bigelow shared the following.
“Many years ago, Robesonian reporters were tasked with the thankless job of typing in letters to Santa for a special Christmas section of the newspaper. The work put the typists into the Christmas spirit as letters were read out loud across the newsroom.
“One letter that came in over Christmas 1978 was different. It was a plea from a boy for Santa to bring Christmas to his brothers and sisters. He said he needed nothing, but his family was on hard times because his father was in jail.
“This is the exact moment the Empty Stocking Fund began. We decided to adopt the family (and ultimately several others). Putting the letter on the front page brought donations, including a $100 bill from a man who appeared to be covered in auto grease.
“One family that received Christmas dinner lived in an aged white wooden house down a long dirt road. An elderly man sat under a leafless pecan tree cooking collard greens in a cast iron wash pot.
“Another family had no stove at all, just a gaping hole where it should have been.
“For our ‘letter to Santa’ family, we planned to arrive on Christmas Eve. Volunteers, young men who were recruited by a female volunteer, cut wood until nightfall for the family’s wood stove.
“It was nearly dark when the group arrived at an unpainted house in a yard with no grass. The mother, who must have thought we were not coming, was in the yard trying to make bicycles out of random parts.
“A caravan of cars and pickup trucks roared into the yard like an insane pack of Santa’s elves. There was food, wood, new bikes, lots of toys and some tears.”
Bigelow told us that Harvey Burgess, then a reporter at the paper, named the effort The Empty Stocking Fund, and although it faltered at times, Bob Horne, the editor of the newspaper for most of the 1980s, “put it on a professional course.”
Our calculations, and they are rough, is that the fund has raised about $1.4 million over that time, providing Christmas for about 70,000 children. It has survived because of the benevolence of Robeson County residents, many of whom don’t have much themselves, but are willing to give what they can.
This year promises to be challenging, both because of the number of children registered, but Hurricane Matthew has put forward new priorities worthy of financial support. Also, because our office at 2175 Roberts Ave. was flooded, our staff is scattered, so we will provide two locations for anyone to make a donation.
One is at our old office on Roberts Avenue, where a trailer is stationed. Ask for Clarissa Jackson.
The other is a 325 E. Fourth St. in downtown Lumberton, which is now home to our News, Circulation and Advertising departments. Ask for either Tammy Oxendine or Amanda Revels. As always, checks can be mailed to The Robesonian, c/o Empty Stocking Fund, 2175 Roberts Ave., Lumberton, N.C., 28358.
As in the past, we will publish photographs with gifts of $500 or more when that request is made. To give yourself the best chance of that photograph appearing on page 1A, get your donation in early.
Staff at the Department of Social Services will use the money to provide a $50 voucher for each eligible child that can be redeemed at Roses, either the Lumberton store or the one in Fairmont. In years past, they could be redeemed at Kmart in Lumberton, but that store has closed.
Editor Donnie Douglas can be reached at 910-416-5649.