12/11/10 — Empty Stocking Fund Party held Saturday

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Empty Stocking Fund Party held Saturday

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on December 11, 2010 11:20 PM

Caitlyn Melton was too excited to sit still at the Empty Stocking Fund Christmas party Saturday morning, so the 6-year-old climbed into her mother's lap and bounced on her knee.

"I want a basketball today," she announced, giggling with sister Madison Melton, 4.

But when her turn came to walk behind the stage curtain at Dillard Middle School and pick out a Christmas present, she settled on a princess doll play set instead, as mom Candy Melton collected boxes of warm winter clothing for her two girls.

Knowing her daughters would receive gifts, even though money is tight for their family, was a gift to her, too, Mrs. Melton said.

"It's nice. It's hard, especially at Christmas," she said.

Hundreds of local children got a helping hand to make Christmas special this year through the Empty Stocking Fund, a 98-year-old non-profit charity sponsored in partnership by The Goldsboro News-Argus, the Goldsboro Woman's Club and the Continental Society.

But for Michelle Dunham and her son Conner Dunham, 4, this was the first time they had ever been invited to the Empty Stocking Fund party.

"It's wonderful. I have never actually been in a situation where the kids might not get anything for Christmas," Mrs. Dunham said. "Getting the letter in the mail was special, to know he could get a present."

Conner jumped up in his seat, shouting out the magic words -- "Merry Christmas!" -- as magician Almost Amazing Rex treated the children to a stage show, making rainbow handkerchiefs appear from a bag.

"He's having a lot of fun," Mrs. Dunham said with a smile, watching her son.

Like many families, the Dunhams have struggled with unemployment for months, and the Empty Stocking Fund party made the season brighter for them.

"I lost my job over the summer. We didn't really have money to buy for the kids," Mrs. Dunham said.

Putting together the Empty Stocking Fund party for the children of Wayne County takes the work of many community helpers. Hours earlier, dozens of volunteers rushed to get the hundreds of toys in place behind the stage curtain, ready for each child with a special ticket to come and pick their gift.

Members of the Goldsboro Woman's Club handled the toys while members of the Continental Society sorted and handed out the clothes.

It's a big undertaking to buy toys for hundreds of children, and the group goes to work more than a month before the party, Goldsboro Woman's Club President Linda de Araujo said.

The club members shopped at Wal-Mart to select a wide variety of toys to give the girls and boys a chance to get just what they wanted for Christmas. The boys usually like basketballs and footballs, and the girls love the dolls, but it's the adults who get the most out of the experience, Ms. Araujo said.

"Just to see the look on the kids' faces. They're always shocked," she said.

The Continental Society works year-round to help children, but the Empty Stocking Fund party is special, Continental Society President Anetta Reid said. Many of the women in the group are teachers or retired teachers, and have seen the need in the Wayne County community for the kind of help the fund provides.

"This particular project is in keeping with what we do all year round. We are very fortunate to be involved," Ms. Reid said.

The members of the Continental Society worked with JC Penney and Sears to select the clothing for each girl and boy. Without the Empty Stocking Fund, some children wouldn't have much under the tree, Ms. Reid said.

"There's just something special about them receiving something for Christmas. Their faces light up when they see that big old box," she said. "Some of these children might not get anything but what they get today. Many of them won't."

The International Student Club from Wayne Community College was on hand to translate for any families who didn't speak English. Members of the club, many of whom speak a variety of languages -- including Chinese -- attend the party every year to offer communication assistance, club advisor Phyllis Patterson said.

"Our club is about helping others," she explained, before diving in herself to usher children to the tables crammed full of gifts.

Wayne Community College student Xiu Liu reached out to take seven-year-old Jameika's hand and lead her to the presents.

"You want to see Santa?" she asked, after helping her pick out a doll.

"Yes, but I don't want to sit on his lap," Jameika decided.

Alyssa Sheppard, 10, wanted a Barbie doll play set, while her little brother Nicholas Sheppard, 5, went straight for a toy truck.

"I couldn't afford anything for them this year," mother Taunya Sheppard said, carrying her kids' new clothes as they ran ahead to greet Santa. "I'm thankful that people get together to do this. It means a lot to parents and to kids."

Some children came on the stage knowing just what they wanted for Christmas. Tyquan, 10, found his present among the sports equipment.

"This is what I want," he said, holding up a football. "I had a basketball, but it went flat."

Empty Stocking Fund organizers were concerned that transportation problems and bad weather may have been an issue for some families. Families with tickets can pick up their children's toys and clothing Dec. 21 from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the Salvation Army.

The Empty Stocking Fund is still about $15,000 short of reaching its goal, News-Argus executive assistant and fund organizer Debbie Pennell said. The fund will continue taking donations even after the holidays.

"We take donations year-round. There is no cut-off date," she said.

The organizers thanked donors, Goldsboro News-Argus staff, the Goldsboro Women's Club, the Continental Society, the International Student Club at WCC, the Spring Creek Future Farmers of America for helping escort families and set up the event, the Eastern Wayne choral group for performing for the children, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base volunteers, the Bob Braswell and Gene Jackson families for many decades of help and the many other individuals and organizations that make the event possible each year.