Amid halting economic recovery, holiday giving still struggles

Volunteer Tom Sullivan, of Canton, bags toys for a needy family at the Toys for Tots warehouse.
Volunteer Tom Sullivan, of Canton, bags toys for a needy family at the Toys for Tots warehouse. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

About 900 Carroll County families are waiting for donations of toys, clothing and maybe a holiday dinner, but the county's social services will be able to fulfill the wishes of less than half of them. The deadline for donors to sign up came and went Thursday, leaving the county well short of its goal for seasonal giving.

The Marine Corps' annual Toys for Tots drive is also lagging — it has collected about 16,000 items, but has more than 67,000 requests from individuals and organizations throughout the Baltimore area. And in Howard County, the Salvation Army drive will likely have to scale back the number of gifts and limit those to children aged 12 and younger.

"People are giving less because they have to fork out more for everything else in their lives," said chapter director Windy Kidd. "They are in the mood to give and want to be generous, but sometimes, they just can't."

Holiday gift donations are down this year across the region, and demand remains stubbornly high, according to organizers of charity drives. Though early numbers show seasonal shopping is on the rise as the economy makes a halting recovery from recession, experts and organizers said that could mean people are simply spending on gifts for their own families that they couldn't afford in tougher years.

"Charitable giving is suffering tremendously," said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic development at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. "People who have worried about keeping their jobs for the last two or three years don't have money to give away."

Charities have also scaled back on staff and operational expenses, including mailings and other advertising for their causes, said Betsy Nelson, president of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers.

"Charitable giving has not rebounded," Nelson said. "Many of these groups depend on gifts from individuals who are still feeling the challenges of this recession. This also shows that we are not out of the woods with this economy. People have to put their own families first."

Kelly Armstrong, a single mother of six children who lives in Walbrook Junction, was lucky enough to connect with Toys for Tots.

She lost her job in October, when she had to stay home with a 2-year-old son who had developed pneumonia and asthma. Armstrong had no idea how she would afford even one gift for each child until she signed up for the toy giveaway. A Marine officer called and asked all of the children — with the exception of 10-month-old Aiynna — what they wanted.

"They asked for shoes and clothes at first," said Armstrong. "Then came video games, a skateboard and other toys. We don't know what to expect but this will really make Christmas for my children."

But even that program, which has been around since 1947, is experiencing a shortfall. Last week, after packing several orders at a cavernous warehouse in Middle River, Staff Sgt. John Gilliam stared at empty pallets that in previous years might have been loaded with piles of toys.

"We are really hurting," he said. "I need to fill this place all the way up to 28-foot high ceilings. It will take everything we get to provide for 40,000 kids this year."

Baltimore County will open its "toy stores," with free shopping for needy parents this week, hoping to run out of shoppers before donations.

"It is going to be really tight this time," said Betty Okonski, who has run the giveaway for 29 years and buys most of the toys with donations. "A lot of the people who have given to us for years are going to be shopping for their own children this year."

At the Salvation Army's Baltimore headquarters, Major Barry Corbitt said area branches are all having the same problem. He is assisting at least 100 more families this year than last and hoping about 7,200 children will have gifts, he said.

"We keep hearing there is an economic recovery," he said. "Baltimore is still caught in the downturn. There are just not enough donations to go around."

Cindy Parr, director of Human Services Programs in Carroll County, said the region mirrors national giving trends, which have spiraled downward during the recession by as much as 60 percent. "The intent and the desire to give is there, but the discretionary dollars are so much less for so many people."

Deborah S. Ward, Baltimore County director of volunteer services, is mailing invitations to nearly 400 income-eligible families this week, offering them a chance to shop. She is also fielding calls constantly from families who want to be put on her invitation list. Years of experience at organizing the giveaways tells her she will need many more toys than she has on hand.

"It is really scary out there right now," she said. "We just have to pray we have enough toys and we have to stretch what we have. We have the same level of donors but they just can't give at the levels they have done in previous years."

The county has made giving convenient with drop-offs at all 17 library branches in the hopes that traditional generosity will take hold. It is still early in the giving season and warm weather might be delaying the Christmas spirit, Ward said. The first toy store will be held Friday at the Southwest Emergency Services Center.

Corbitt, the Salvation Army director, said, "Times are tough for everyone in the helping business. But this is a benevolent community. … In the end, I am optimistic we will come through for people."

Those who have already promised to give are busily gathering items to help fulfill families' wishes.

In Hunt Valley, Richard Princinsky and Associates already provided a mother and two children Thanksgiving dinner and are collecting presents and gift cards for delivery the week before Christmas.

"It's the time of year when you want to do for others," said Kathy Shunkwiler, who added she has no qualms about prompting co-workers at the insurance firm to donate.

The Hereford Optimist Club has also adopted a family in its neighborhood and members have pledged donations.

"We will get as much as we can for them," said Kenneth J. Bollinger, club member.

Harford County seems to be faring better. Mason Dixon Community Services, which coordinates the county's holiday effort, has attracted more donors than it needs to adopt about 900 families. Organizers will be able to help seniors, shut-ins and the disabled, said Theresa Perry, community coordinator.

"We really try to be good stewards of our donors' time and gifts," she said. "This is a real collaborative effort that gets amazing support."

Groups in other counties remain optimistic that they can still help families in need. Though deadlines have passed for donors to sign up, organizers say nobody's generosity will be refused.

"We have three weeks left and people here always step up," Parr said. "They know their gifts can provide a safety net that will make the whole community a better place for everybody. Giving helps those who give as much as those who receive."

Corbitt said he anticipates a last-minute response.

"But," he said. "We will be cutting it close."


Ways to give

•To locate a nearby Marine Toys for Tots Foundation collection location or donate money to the organization, visit toysfortots.org or call 443-864-1209.

•Mason Dixon Community Services' Maryland office is located in the Highland Commons Building at 708 Highland Road in Harford County. The office is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. or by appointment, which can be scheduled by calling 410-452-9025.

•For information about holiday donations to the Salvation Army, through the group's Angel Tree or Red Kettle campaigns, go to salvationarmyusa.org. The Baltimore area command can be reached by phone at 410-783-2920.

•Catholic Charities of Baltimore accepts Christmas giving donations through their website, catholiccharities-md.org. The organization can also be reached by phone at 410-547-5490.

•Human Services Programs of Carroll County can be reached at 410-857-2999 or on the Web at hspinc.org.

•Information about Baltimore County Volunteer Services is available by phone at 410-887-2715 or e-mail at volunteers@baltimorecountymd.gov.

•The Anne Arundel County department of social services can be reached at 410-269-4500.

—Steve Kilar

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