CLEARWATER — Thousands of toys, dolls and games were piled on tables at the Salvation Army's Christmas Joy Center this week.
On Monday and Tuesday, parents stopped by to shop for Christmas. Some spent quite a while choosing between gifts like Barbies, Etch A Sketches, MP3 players and skateboards. But they didn't have to pay a cent.
The Salvation Army of North Pinellas County doled out the gifts and thousands of meals in a two-day effort to help 3,500 struggling families have a happier holiday.
In all, the Joy Center at 1521 E Druid Road gave away about 15,000 new toys. Each family also got a ham and a bag stuffed with canned and boxed goods.
The items were purchased with money from donations, which, so far this holiday, are down almost 30 percent, said North County Salvation Army Capt. Zach Bell.
The Salvation Army in north county generally collects about $750,000 during the holidays from kettles, mail and online giving, he said.
But the need is even greater this year because there's been a 20 percent increase in applicants, he said.
"I just see it as an opportunity for the community to step up," Bell said. "The fact is we need more help than ever before."
Amanda Arteaga, a 23-year-old single mom who lives in Safety Harbor, said she was initially reluctant to accept help.
"I didn't want to come at first because I felt kind of embarrassed," said Arteaga, who has a 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. But her desire to give her children a happy holiday overshadowed those feelings.
Arteaga, who just got a job working in an elementary school cafeteria after applying to more than 30 others, said her daughter isn't quite aware of Christmas, yet. But her son, Jacob, is. And she was worried she wouldn't be able to afford presents for him.
On Monday, she picked out a Dino Robot action figure kit, a play food set and a shopping cart for him. He's very creative and loves dinosaurs, she said.
"It will make my son light up on Christmas day to see presents there for him. He'll see he's special and someone cares about him," said Arteaga, a tear coming to her eye. "It's just a miracle that so many people care."
About 200 volunteers helped make the giveaway possible.
Juanita Nelting, a volunteer since the late 1980s, said she's seen a change in the clients since then.
"We have a lot more people now who are coming for the first time because of loss of jobs," said Nelting, 72.
People tell her they were always able to put money in the kettle and now they need help.
Times have been tough for Siobhan Robinson, 36, another single mom who lost her job at a retirement planning firm, and just got hired at a call center.
"Thank God they've got this service," said Robinson, 36, who has a 6-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter.
"It's all about them and making them happy," she said.
Amy Jackson, who has six children and another baby boy on the way, said this was the first time she had to rely on the Salvation Army to help her family for Christmas. In August, they moved into a Clearwater home. Last month, they learned it was in foreclosure.
"We had to save money to move by Jan. 1, and I'm due on the first," said Jackson, 33.
Jackson's husband is a mechanical engineer. She's a certified nursing assistant and was working nights at a private assisted living facility when she learned she was pregnant again. She wasn't able to do the lifting required in her job and quit after her doctor told her to do so, she said.
"It's hard with children and one parent working," Jackson said.
She didn't want to ask for help. But, she said, "You think of your kids first."
Stories like Jackson's are not unusual, Bell said.
"That's the face of who we serve now," Bell said. "That's the sad reality."
Bell said the economy has a lot to do with the dip in donations. He also acknowledged that contributions may have been hindered by the controversy surrounding recently elected state Sen. Jim Norman's work as a state Salvation Army community liaison.
Norman retired from the Salvation Army last month after questions arose about his $95,000 salary and what he did to earn it.
Bell said he was worried that local organizations and their clients may be hurt even though none of the local Salvation Armys ever had Norman on their payroll.
"My biggest fear is that something like that will ruin it for someone who needed help," Bell said.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.