As Christmas fast approaches, charities sound alarms

December 13, 1993|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

The Christmas season is considered a time of giving, but Baltimore area residents seem to be giving less than usual this year. Many social service agencies and charities say donations to toy and food drives are down despite increased need in several counties.

The shortfall is especially severe in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties, where in some cases cash donations are only a fraction of what usually is given.

Record numbers of families have applied for assistance from Harford County's Neighbors in Need program, said Joy Rich, the director. But the program has raised only about $600 this year, compared with $16,000 it usually receives during the Christmas season.

"I'm a little nervous," Ms. Rich said.

Although the county has found sponsors to buy food and gifts for all but 120 of 2,845 families who have asked for help, it still needs money to provide services throughout the year, she added.

Anne Arundel's Holiday Sharing program is facing a shortage of family sponsors and cash. "We always get into a bit of a crunch, but I've never seen it like this," said Imelda Herzinger, volunteer coordinator for the Medical Society Alliance, which coordinates the program.

The program matches needy families with organizations, businesses and individuals interested in adopting families for the holidays. The alliance, working with the county's social services department, screens families to make sure there are no duplications.

Ms. Herzinger said that 3,000 families have applied for help this year, many of them seeking aid for the first time. But late last week she still needed sponsors for more than 300 of them.

Even more serious has been the drop in cash donations, which help buy gifts for those families who aren't sponsored. So far, the program has raised only half the $16,000 it raised last year, Ms. Herzinger said.

No one is quite sure why donations are down and need is up, despite improvements in the state's unemployment rate.

"People might not know the needs still exist," said Sylvia Canon, executive director of the Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc., which oversees that county's Neighbors in Need program.

The Carroll program expects to serve more than 1,200 families this year -- about 200 more than last year. But as of last week, the program had found sponsors for only about half of its needy families. Food donations were running so low that the coordinators had to tell volunteers not to bother coming to pack food boxes. There was no food.

About 800 food boxes are needed, but only 150 have been packed so far -- just a little more than a week before they must be delivered.

Ms. Canon said her agency will have no alternative but to give less food to families this year.

Only in the city and Howard County do agency workers say that donations are close to meeting the need.

"It seems to be OK," said Sue Fitzsimmons, spokeswoman for the city's department of social services.

She said needy families in the city benefit from a number of corporate sponsors. Some of the social services department's intake centers also adopt families at Christmastime, she said.

In Howard, where the Salvation Army expects to provide food and toys to between 600 and 700 families, "it's looking good so far," said Lt. Ted Craddock, director of the Salvation Army's program in Howard.

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army Social Services Center in Baltimore County may have to give fewer new toys to children this Christmas.

"The same number of donations are coming in as last year, but the amount is less," said Major Frank Gordon, the Baltimore County area commander.

Last year, his post raised $250,000 and set a goal this year of $300,000. "I don't like to be pessimistic, but I don't think we'll reach it," Mr. Gordon said.

Last year, 1,305 needy families were adopted in Baltimore County. But this year, sponsors have been found for only a few hundred families and 400 more are in need, said Lindy Park, director of Volunteer Services with the Baltimore County Department of Social Services.

"I would be panicked if I had time to be panicked," she said.

She said many of the churches, businesses and clubs that helped last Christmas are saying they don't have the money to help this year.

The Marine Corps Reserves' Toys for Tots campaign in the Baltimore area also is falling short of goals. "The spirit is not the same," said Sgt. Ricardo Medina, assistant coordinator of the campaign.

The Marines had hoped to collect 60,000 toys -- more than twice as many as were collected last year. But so far, donations have been less than last year.

Despite the bleak outlook, agency officials said they believed that somehow they would bring Christmas to those in need.

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