Every December, Baltimore County's Department of Social Services converts a large supply closet into a toy store. Shoppers can bring their lists but won't need their wallets. All the dolls, Tonka trucks, trains, storybooks and games have been donated by businesses, community organizations, schools and individuals. About 15,000 toys will be given to needy families throughout the county by close of business Wednesday.
"We have more than 1,000 donors, and 100 percent of the donations go directly to our clients," said Deborah S. Ward, director of the volunteer services division, who gets to play Santa Claus.
She tells one visitor not to leave her coat near the latest donated arrivals. "Somebody will give it away," she warned. "I lost mine that way one year."
In her 13th year in a role she relishes, she is facing her greatest challenge. She does not lack for donors, but the number of gifts has diminished - in some cases, donors have cut by half what they have traditionally provided the program. She blames the sluggish economy and high unemployment for the spike in requests and the decrease in donations.
"One company typically adopts 100 families but could handle less than 50 this year," she said. "Another organization had cut its donation in half. I know that it is mostly the employees of these companies that help us, and they are all feeling the same problems we all are. Even our nonprofit partners are having problems. They have to forgo Christmas to meet people's daily needs. You have to prevent an eviction before you can give toys."
Ward sent more than 1,200 invitations in October to families who rely on assistance from the department and asked what each wanted for the holidays. Most requested food and toys. She matched families to all the available donors willing to adopt a family and still had a greater need than people who could fill it.
"We have a huge population to serve, particularly in the eastern area of the county," she said.
She frets about a family of four who have lived in a motel for the past year, the two teens who just lost their mother, and the elderly grandparents caring for young grandchildren.
A truckload of new winter clothing and a stack of gift cards arrived from Fort Garrison Elementary in Pikesville. Shopping carts of toys came in from a church in Sparks and a spa in Rosedale. Catherine Howard, a member of Stevenson African Methodist Episcopal Church, said hard times did not deter the congregation.
"Isn't giving the reason why we are all here?" she said.
The county library branches, with the exception of Cockeysville, which is being renovated, are collecting donations through Wednesday.
"We have had a very good response and made two runs to Social Services this week," said Deborah Wheeler, assistant director for public services. "It makes me feel good to go into the branches and see boxes filled with toys. People are being generous even in these hard times."
Ward invites social workers on the staff to shop for their clients. Sade Russell, a student intern at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work, filled a large red bag with toys for four children living with their grandmother. She added a string of tree lights to the hefty parcel before slinging it over her shoulder, saying all she needed was a red Santa hat. Ward made sure Russell had a bag of groceries and a gift card to a local food store before she drove to the home and helped the grandmother hide the gifts.
"There is a lot of variety here for me to choose from, and the grandmother has given me good ideas for what the kids like," Russell said.
Experience tells Ward that donations will continue to arrive throughout the week, and she remains determined to handle all the requests. The greatest need now is for gifts for teens and infants.
"People think teens only want expensive toys, but that's not true," she said, suggesting hand-held games, makeup, curling irons and basketballs. Russell chose a calligraphy kit and scrapbooking materials for the teen in her client family.
Donors may drop off toys at county library branches or the Department of Social Services, Drumcastle Center, 6401 York Road, through Wednesday. Information: 410-853-3024.