With health and money struggles mounting, mom wants a joyful Christmas for her daughter

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The last six months have been one tough battle after another for Patricia Fulford and her daughter, 11-year-old Isabella.

Last summer, doctors discovered Fulford needed brain surgery, and the recovery meant she had to quit her job as a nurse’s aide.

And last month, Fulford was at home with her family when the right side of her mouth twisted and the right side of her body went weak. At the hospital, doctors found she had a stroke.

Money was already tight to begin with, but now, with Fulford still recovering and unable to work, balancing the family budget is excruciating, she says.

So with Christmas coming, Fulford did something she’s never had to do before: request Christmas gifts for Isabella through the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program.

“It’s been rough,” Fulford says. “But this is going to help me a lot.”

This year, Isabella is one of about 7,300 children who are registered to receive toys and clothes through the Salvation Army’s Christmas program, which matches children in need with anonymous donors who buy the gifts. Some 1,400 senior citizens will also receive gifts this Christmas.

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 6,056 toys and 456 gifts for low-income seniors.

Each child will also receive a new backpack this year, so Empty Stocking funds were used to purchase 8,000 backpacks and 20,000 small items to stuff in them. Children in the program range in age from infants to 12 years old.

Fulford, a single mom, also has a 33-year-old son who was raised with a very different childhood than Isabella.

She was a CATS bus driver while raising her son, Talmus, and there was money for a house with a yard and things like travel sports and out-of-town trips. Talmus and his wife now help Patricia and Isabella as much as possible, driving them to errands and appointments and taking Isabella home from her afterschool program at the Boys and Girls Club each day.

“There are a lot of things we don’t do anymore, like going to the beach. And (Isabella) had to drop out of gymnastics and cheerleading,” Fulford says. “Sometimes you have to figure out if you’re going to eat or you’re going to pay the lights.”

Isabella is an energetic and curious sixth-grader, so mom put a few things on her Christmas list that she knows she’ll love: board games, a kit to make homemade slime and a nail set.

Fulford is hoping some relief for the two of them is in sight. She says she has a hearing later this month to apply for disability benefits, and she started getting food stamps last month — for the first time in her life, she says.

She and Isabella recently moved into a more affordable apartment in the Cherry community, after battling with rising rent that was no longer affordable.

Fulford says she feels guilty that she can’t give Isabella the same childhood she gave Talmus.

“She has asked me, ‘Mama, why can’t I move into a house?’” Fulford says. “I try not to disappoint her. This would be the first year I’m not able to get her what she wants” at Christmas.

“It’s hard to go from having everything to struggling,” she says.