Though many holiday budgets were squeezed tight this season, local agencies say Howard countians have been as generous as ever to those in need.
Agencies that rely on holiday donations report that contributions this year have exceeded expectations and in no way reflect the austere economic climate.
"I would say Howard County has the biggest heart in the country and there's been an outpouring of generosity that is truly inspiring,"said Andrea Ingram, director of the Grassroots homeless shelter in Columbia.
Maj. Paula Meehan of the Salvation Army, which set up a toy shop in the county for the first time, was also pleased with the amount of local giving.
"In a year like this, you never know if folks are going to be able to contribute the way they have in the past,"Meehan said.
At Grassroots, donations from school and church groups, clubs, neighborhoods and Scout troops have been arriving at a steady pace.
The shelter has received new toys for children of all ages, clothes for children and adults, Christmas ornaments and childrens' books and school supplies.
The donations will be distributed among shelter residents and former residents who have recently moved back to the community.
Volunteers have thrown holiday parties at theshelter and will cook special Christmas and New Year's dinners for shelter residents.
"It's a difficult time and people are not feeling that this is where they would choose to be," said Harriet Bachman, volunteer and community education coordinator at Grassroots.
"I think that when people from the community decide they want to help, it makes it a little bit brighter for them."
With help from the community, the Salvation Army made Christmas possible for about 600 countyfamilies this year, about 100 more than last year, Meehan said.
For the first time, the organization operated a toy shop here, locatedin a county-owned building behind Howard High School. In the past, the Salvation Army has run only a holiday clearinghouse in the county, pairing needy families with volunteers.
Meehan and volunteers stocked the toy shop with merchandise bought from a wholesale company, and hundreds of parents stopped by the shop Friday to collect Christmas presents for their children.
The Department of Social Services and the Department of Education provided the Salvation Army with a list of families who needed help to make it through the holidays.
Up until a week ago, Meehan said, she didn't have enough families on herlist to match up with all the groups that wanted to help out. But supply and demand eventually evened out.
Meehan paired the families with church groups, businesses, clubs and other families, which took care of buying food, clothes and toys for them. According to her lastcount, local groups had "adopted" about 350 families.
"There's a lot of generosity in the county," Meehan said.