Salvation Army volunteers valiantly kept ringing their bells last week in an 11th-hour drive to fill their kettles before Christmas.

With donations down by more than $15,000 compared with this time last year, Maj. Jess Duncan, the director of the Salvation Army in Annapolis, was working around-the-clock to drum up more support.

He gave pep talks and called businesses to lobby for donations, saying that without a dramatic turn-around, he fears needy families could be left in the cold at the end of the holiday season.

"We really are facing a crisis right now," he said. "We have a lot more people requesting food, toys and other help, but a lot fewer people are giving, or they're giving less. People who used to give $75 are now giving $25 or $50, and that has a big impact."

Other charities in the county also have been set back by an unprecedented demand for help this year. More needy families than ever have signed up for food baskets, toys and gift certificates, the organizations reported. But at the same time, contributions are lagging.

"We're down tremendously on food donations," said Peggy Vick, head of the North Arundel Salvation Army, which sponsors a canned food drive at area grocery stores.

The large red boxes, trimmed in the Christmas spirit with a sign urging shoppers to donate food, have remained nearly empty on most days, Vick said. But dozens of families stop by the Glen Burnie office every day to request food.

"People need to keep their houses, they need to keep their cars, and they need to provide things for the family. So the thing they really need from us is food," she said.

Bruce Michalec, director of the Anne Arundel County Food Bank, agreed that the annual Christmas drive "has been a little slow." But he and other charity leaders are more worried by the impact in the upcoming months.

By campaigning heavily for donations and dipping into reserve funds, groups such as the Salvation Army have pulled together enough food and toys to serve the needy at Christmas.

A countywide food and gift drive sponsored by the Department of Social Services collected thousands of toys and matched up nearly 3,000 needy families with donors. In contrast to Thanksgiving, when 200 families didn't receive turkey dinners, the Christmas effort has been a stunning success, said Christine Poulsen, who coordinates the Holiday Sharing program.

"We're in much greater shape than we expected," she said. "We keep getting more calls for help, but we're also getting more and more volunteers."

Holiday Sharing has been steadily matching poor families and senior citizens who have received government assistance since Thanksgiving.

Poulsen credited County Executive Robert R. Neall for promoting the campaign at a Dec. 11 breakfast with business leaders.

Neall passed out envelopes to each table and urged the 300 business people to donate money to Holiday Sharing.

"Something that has been very much on my mind in the last week has been the status of the deteriorating economy," he said. "More and more people are flocking to our doors for help. This is going to be a middle-class recession. People who are turning to us for help have not sought help before."

Poulsen agreed with his assessment, saying she fields calls every day from the newly poor. Laid-off workers and self-employed contractors have called as a last resort, worried that their families won't have enough to eat during the winter months.

Food banks and the Salvation Army, which rely on holiday donations to provide food, clothing and emergency checks for heating oil, are scared that they will face a shortfall by February. "Needs have no seasons," Duncan pointed out.

Anne Arundel's food bank could be quickly depleted unless contributions increase from campaigns such as Harvest for the Hungry, sponsored by Maryland Realtors.

Realtors in the greater Baltimore region only have collected $270,000 worth of food so far, instead of their goal of $350,000, said Richard Dobry, a broker with ReMax in Severna Park.

"It's tougher this year than it has ever been," he said. "We're hoping to get a big splurge at the end of the year because so many people are asking for food."

Michalec said he relies on such drives to keep the food warehouse in Deale stocked. He's worried that the sagging economy will lead to more layoffs in January. With the rising oil prices, many families could be forced to skimp on food to keep their homes warm, he said.

Neall emphasized the same point at the business breakfast.

"January, February and March can be pretty cool months if there's not enough money to heat your home," he said.

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