CHARLOTTE, N.C. _ For the past five years, Jnelle Dean has continued a special Christmas tradition with her two kids: one year they give each other gifts and the next year they use what extra cash they have to bless another family with presents.
Last Christmas found Dean and her children on hard times and living in a Charlotte homeless shelter, but Dean still continued the tradition.
Jmiel, then 14, and Naima, then 11, helped their mom pick out little dollar-store gifts for a family with young kids who were staying at the shelter too - coloring books and crayons, toiletries and little dolls.
"I explained that everyone isn't as blessed as we were," Jnelle Dean said. "Even though we were (in the shelter), we were blessed not to be on the street or sleeping in the car. Just because it seems that things are hard right now, it's always harder for someone else."
This year, the family is back on more solid footing, living in a townhome provided with the help of the Salvation Army's Supportive Housing Initiative Partnership. Dean has a clerical job at Central Piedmont Community College and is taking classes to earn her bachelor's degree in social work. Next on her list is a master's degree in mental health counseling.
But money is still tight for the single mom, so Dean registered Naima for gifts through the Salvation Army's Christmas program.
On Naima's Christmas wish list is the video game "Minecraft"; Dean says she'd like to foster her daughter's interest in engineering that the game draws out.
In addition to teaching her kids about charity, Dean is big into teaching her kids about personal responsibility and how to get along with others.
A large white board in the family's kitchen one Friday spelled out an assignment she had given Naima and Jmiel: A three-page essay about "How my actions can affect others, positive/negative," citing at least two works.
She's a busy mom, juggling a job and school work, but she says there's always time for fun, and she's glad her kids can see her working hard toward a goal.
"It sounds funny, going from my first passion which was cosmetology, to social work, but I generally got into cosmetology because I wanted to do something that would help people smile. There's nothing like doing hair and spinning that chair around and seeing someone's face light up because they feel beautiful," she says.
"When I realized I couldn't work in cosmetology full time, I still wanted to be in a position that would allow someone to feel better about themselves or help people smile," Dean said, "and it seemed like social work would be the best fit."
Dean's spirits are high, and she sees a bright future ahead for herself and her children, despite her tight resources.
"Sometimes it is hard, but we just say 'today just wasn't the day. Tomorrow is another day,' " Dean says. "We just keep pushing because we know that the hard times don't last always. We know if we were happy and content at one point in time, we can be that way again."