Mary Sims peered into the box with an expectant smile that broadenedas soon as she spotted the little pink jacket.
"Ooooooh, that's perfect," she crowed, holding it up to show off to several women at the Salvation Army in Glen Burnie. Then, carefully refolding the sleeves, she tucked the jacket under a teddy bear in the box full of gifts for her year-old twins.
Two days after the charity gave out toys to nearly 200 families, more people came knocking at the door. Single mothers sorted through piles of second-hand Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, board games and blocks. A weary-looking construction worker walked into the main office off Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard and asked for a pair of boots. Hard on his heels came a young man carrying an infant. He needed a stroller.
"It's been crazy," said Peggy Vick, director of the North County Salvation Army. "We had our Toy Shop, our major distribution, and the next day, another 35 families came in to get gifts and food."
Across the county, charities have been inundated with requests for help this year. The recession has left many families unable to affordeven one, let alone 12 days of Christmas. Newly laid-off workers areskipping the holiday trimmings to pay the rent or mortgage and buy food for their children.
Few organizations are worrying about the frills this year -- the candy canes and sugar plums, said Bruce Michalec, director of the Anne Arundel Food Bank. Most are just trying to keep pace with the demand to supply families with basic foods, a few toys and emergency money to tide over their rent.
"The giving is slow, and the need is just tremendous," Michalec said. "We're getting the staples, but none of the extras. But the staples are going fast."
Like its counterpart in the northern end of the county and other non-profit groups, the Annapolis Salvation Army is struggling with a dramatic upswing in requests for help this holiday season. The organization reported an 18 percent increase in the number of families seeking assistance.
Contributions are lagging across the county, but reports of shortages have prompted an "outpouring of support" in recentweeks, charity officials said.
Three times as many gifts were donated for needy children through the Angel Tree program this year. Companies and private donors also rushed out to buy gifts after learningthat 100 children in the Annapolis area were likely to end up with empty stockings. By yesterday, Holiday Sharing had collected almost enough toys for all the names on its list, said Christine Poulsen, who coordinates the countywide food and gift drive sponsored by the Department of Social Services and the Anne Arundel Medical Auxiliary.
Charities are hopeful that they will keep pace with the rising demand,even though contributions to traditional programs like the SalvationArmy's holiday kettles are down about 20 percent.
"We still need food and toys," Vick said. "We're doing all right now, but I think many people will wait until the last minute, thinking families and friends will pitch in and help. They're going to come in next Monday and Tuesday when they realize it's not happening."
The charity expectsto give food and toys to 500 families this year, 175 more than last Christmas. Some are steady customers, single parents such as Sims whohave come in every year. Others are new to the system.
One was a 48-year-old woman in a frayed coat, who came for a gift for her 4-year-old grandson yesterday. She was laid off in February from her job at a dry-cleaning business. Unable to find another job, she's been forced to turn to charities for help and a little Christmas spirit.
"Thank God for this place," she said, as she picked up a box full of toys. "I don't know where I would be without it."