With less than three weeks until Christmas, grim visions of empty stockings are dancing in the heads of worried charity volunteers.
More needy families than ever have signed up for food baskets, toys and gift certificates this year, county charities and social service agencies report.
"We get more calls every day," said Christine Poulsen, coordinator of Holiday Sharing, a county-wide food and gift drive sponsored by the Department of Social Services. "There's no doubt that the need for help has increased greatly this year."
Caught in the economic slump, many county families can't afford even one, let alone 12 days of Christmas. Laid-off workers are struggling to pay the rent and buy food for their children, while impoverished seniors are skipping the holiday trimmings just to keep their homes heated, Poulsen said.
"We've had so many people come in with their gas and electricity turned off," said Peggy Vick, executive director of the North Arundel Salvation Army.
Like all charitable organizations in the county, the Salvation Army has seen a dramatic upswing in requests for help this holiday season, Vick said. Some non-profit groups reported as much as a 25 percent increase in the number of families seeking assistance.
But charities differ on whether they believe donations will keep pace with the rising demand. Contributions are lagging statewide, with donations to the Washington-area Toys for Tots campaign down 96 percent this year compared to last.
"We're not in that situation," said Sgt. George Vinson, who is running one of two Toys for Tots collections in Anne Arundel County. "I think we're actually doing better this year."
The Marines already have stashed away several bundles of toys at their barracks at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, he said. They hope to collect 1,000 toys for needy children.
Despite a 25 percent increase in requests for food and gift baskets this year, the North County Salvation Army also is "doing better than usual this year," Vick said. The Glen Burnie branch plans to give food, clothing and toys to 500 families this Christmas, 100 more than last year.
But donations to the Salvation Army's famous holiday kettles are down across the county. Only $10,000 was collected by Dec. 1, a drop of $7,000 over contributions at the same time in 1989.
Many people who usually gave $50 checks are mailing in only $30 contributions this year, while others are plunking change instead of $10 bills in the kettle, Salvation Army officials said.
"I think a lot of our faithful donors are cutting back a little because of hard times," said Poulsen, who is hustling to provide food and clothing for needy families and senior citizens who receive government assistance.
The situation looked bleak at Thanksgiving, when 200 families didn't receive turkey dinners. For the first time in the 11-year history of Holiday Sharing, the demand outstripped the supply.
But an "outpouring of support" in recent weeks will provide Christmas baskets, clothing and toys for 1,600 families, Poulsen said. DSS has been steadily matching poor families and seniors with donors since Thanksgiving.
Needy children also will receive gift certificates this year from Santa Claus Anonymous, a Baltimore-based charitable organization that mailed $10 coupons to 55,000 children in the metropolitan region, including 3,800 in Anne Arundel County.
Only four stores are participating in the program this year, said Poulsen, who hopes to attract more merchants next Christmas. The gift certificates can be redeemed at Epstein and McCrory department stores in Glen Burnie, Beacon Pharmacy in Odenton and G.C. Murphy in Harundale.