Samantha Gorsuch's 5-year-old boy has talked nonstop about the talking dump truck he expects from Santa. But the single mother of two, who works two jobs, could not afford to buy the $60 toy on her own.
She found it, with batteries included, at the Baltimore County Department of Social Services' annual toy giveaway.
"Look, it eats cars," said Gorsuch, who had waited in line for nearly an hour in bitter cold Monday, before the store opened at an Essex church. "It's just what my son wanted and it will mean a better Christmas for him."
Like nearly 1,000 income-eligible families in the county with a total of 3,000 children, Gorsuch was mailed an invitation to shop at the store. The annual event kicked off Monday, and ran for two days at Christian Community Church before moving to Woodlawn, then to Reisterstown.
Dolores Blaney, 79, has organized the church location for 15 years. A Parkton Boy Scout troop spent Sunday unloading donations collected at the 17 county libraries. The scouts also helped volunteers sort toys by age and gender and arrange items neatly on tables set up in the church hall.
"It's a lot of work, but it's us using the hands and feet of the Lord," Blaney said. "This is our opportunity to show compassion and help our neighbors."
A week ago, donations were so low and demand so high that organizers feared they would run out of toys long before they ran out of requests. A last-minute spate of donations has made sure there will be enough toys. Still, Blaney fretted as the line of shoppers outside the door grew.
"It looks like we have a lot, but I know it will go fast," she said.
The sluggish economy and persistent unemployment have forced many families to cut back on giving this holiday. An unemployed father searched the tables for gifts for five children.
"For years, I donated to this and now, this year, I have to be on the other end," said Benjamin Carnes of Dundalk.
Before the doors opened at 9 a.m., more toys arrived in a caravan of vehicles from the Bob Davidson Ford dealership. Six employees offered to assist Blaney's volunteers on the "sales floor."
"We love helping out locally and seeing where these toys go," said Kathy Hood, a Bob Davidson employee.
Blaney led volunteers in a brief prayer, asked them to keep their smiles on and then opened early rather than let crowds shiver outside. Shoppers filed in, showed their invitations and, with a volunteer escort, proceeded to meander.
Each shopper received three points per child. The tables were marked with 1, 2 or 3, denoting the points assigned to each toy. Shoppers were often torn between selecting one large toy — like a bike — and three small ones. Volunteers were just as torn and a few even quietly shaved a point or two. The stories can "break your heart," Blaney said.
"The larger toys and the things for teens go first," said Rose Stickline, like Blaney a 15-year volunteer. "Those areas are where we are hurting in donations."
The store attached no points to hundreds of story and coloring books, stuffed animals, small games, crayons and infant and toddler clothing. Every family also left with a hefty carton of canned goods.
Mercy Onoh of Dundalk, a single mother of four, who is working part-time and attending school, lingered long at a table full of dolls before choosing a toddler-sized princess in tiara, who came with several different outfits.
"This really means Christmas for my children," Onoh said. "Without this, I would have nothing. I am so grateful."
Dawn Stoots' boss gives his employees a day off every December to go Christmas shopping. The White Marsh mother of five takes her day away from Precision Concrete to help others shop. She carried a large green trash bag as she assisted Carnes in his gift search for his brood of five, who range in age from 7 to 15.
"I found something for everybody here," he said.
Stoots recommended a few of her own children's favorites as Carnes selected from the book table.
"This event makes me feel grateful for what I have," she said. "I love helping people get what they like for their kids."
Like Carnes, many shoppers were jobless or underemployed. Several grandparents on limited incomes shopped for young grandchildren in their care. Cathy Oxley of Middle River found presents for her 13-year-old son and four grandchildren.
"I can't wait to get home and hide everything until Christmas," she said. "Without this, we would have no Christmas."
Whatever remains of the donations will be trucked to the Woodlawn location for a store Saturday. The Reisterstown location opens Sunday and Dec. 16.
"None of us has a lot and we know what it's like not to have anything at all," said Blaney. "We all just love helping. It keeps me going and makes me feel truly blessed."