Over the past five years, Bob Ross has seen the number of families in need of holiday help in Hernando County nearly double.
Ross, program coordinator for the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program in Hernando, estimates there were about 700 families enrolled in the program in 2006. This year, he predicts the number will top 1,300.
With Christmas just two weeks away, and unemployment still running at 13 percent in Hernando County, Toys for Tots and other local charities are feeling the crunch. With more people in financial straits, charities need more donations.
In some cases, the situation is dire.
"People who used to have comfortable lifestyles are not even able to put food on the table," said Clarence Clark, pastor of Shiloh New Beginnings Pillar of Truth Ministries in Brooksville.
For the first time, Clark's Shiloh Problem Solvers organization will distribute food to more than 500 Hernando County families.
"Even though we anticipate 500, we know that even more will show up," said Clark of the organization's distribution, planned for Wednesday.
Hernando County residents are eligible for a box of food that will include not only staples for a Christmas dinner, but also household foodstuffs, such as milk and cereal. Shiloh Problem Solvers will accept community donations right up until the distribution date.
In addition, for the past four years, the group has provided gifts for children enrolled in the county's Head Start program.
This year, they're collecting gifts for 317 students, up from last year's 278. To qualify for the county program for children ages 3 and 4, family income must be at or below the poverty level.
This year, they've also taken a list of the children's siblings so that every child in the family will receive a gift. Donations of preschool-age toys and books will be accepted until Thursday.
As of this week, Jericho Road Ministries in Brooksville still needed about 20 turkeys and 20 hams, as well as holiday dinner sides, for its 14th annual Christmas luncheon on Dec. 24.
At the event, the Rev. Bruce Gimbel said he expects to serve about 400 holiday meals and distribute gifts to about 100 children.
"We are so thankful for all the help we can get," Gimbel said, adding that over the years the luncheon has quadrupled in size.
He said the number of people staying at Jericho Road's emergency homeless shelters and those enrolled in the organization's food pantry has easily doubled. Jericho Road will accept donations of food and toys until Dec. 23.
The need is also great for the Christmas Angel Program of Hernando County.
"We hope we can do as much as we have done before. At this time, there are less people reaching out to the kids," said Bill Scarff, who with his wife, Mary, has operated the program for a number of years.
The program has 150 names on Christmas trees throughout the county. Children are referred to the program through local churches and school guidance counselors. The program will accept donations until Dec. 20.
Some charities have backed away from the holidays to focus their resources on the everyday needs of families.
"It bothers us terribly. But the reality is there is a tremendous need (this holiday season), and we can't meet it," said Woody Cornetta, general manager of the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry and thrift store in Spring Hill.
Last year, the agency gave out 525 Christmas baskets as well as about 500 gift cards for children. Due to budget constraints, however, St. Vincent de Paul decided to forgo holiday gifts this year and focus on the day-to-day needs of the food pantry, Cornetta said.
And the needs of the food pantry have grown exponentially. Last fiscal year, the pantry served 15,358 families, up from 10,918 the prior year.
Ten years ago, Cornetta said, the pantry served about 100 households per month; now, about 1,500 families walk through the door each month.
"Nobody feels good about this, but we can't turn people away from the food pantry," said Cornetta.
For many years, volunteers at DayStar Life Center in Brooksville provided special Christmas dinner baskets and toys for children. But four years ago, the agency decided to marshal its resources and focus on everyday needs, as well as special Thanksgiving dinner baskets.
"We're trying to do the best we can, to help as many people as we can," said David Goodwin, director of the center.
The nonprofit organization operates a food pantry that distributed 80,000 pounds of food last year, up by more than 30 percent from the year before.
This year, DayStar is collecting toy donations for Christmas. But instead of keeping its own list of families if need, the agency will funnel the donations to help support other charities.
"We want to make sure everybody gets a gift for Christmas," Goodwin said.
• The Christmas Angel Program of Hernando County needs sponsors to help fill wish lists of local children in need. Donations of gift cards are also needed for clothing, perishable food for food baskets, and gifts for teenagers. For information, call Mary or Bill Scarff at (352) 596-1552. Giving trees can be found at seven locations with ornaments containing names and information for each child in need: BROOKSVILLE: Capital City Bank 7153 Broad Street; Brooksville Regional Hospital cafeteria, Cortez Boulevard west of Brooksville; Bealls Department Store, 13190 Cortez Blvd.; C&W Sweepstakes, 13045 Cortez Blvd.; SPRING HILL: Spring Hill Regional Hospital, off County Line Road; Funtasia Sweepstakes, 5165 Commercial Way; Allied Veterans of the World, 2400 Commercial Way.
• The DayStar Life Center food pantry will provide food to families from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays through Jan. 1 at DayStar, 7120 Hope Hill Road, behind St. Anthony Catholic Church, Brooksville. The food pantry provides, for example, a family of four with meat, butter, bread, pastries and nonperishable items. DayStar is a ministry of St. Anthony and has been in operation since 1983. Volunteers are needed, and donations are welcome. For pantry and thrift shop donations or volunteer information, call (352) 799-5930 or visit the website at daystarlifecenter.org.
• The Hernando County Salvation Army is planning to help about 290 families in Hernando County during the holiday season. Bell ringers are set up at various locations throughout the county through Dec. 24 to accept monetary donations in their red kettles. For volunteer opportunities and Christmas programs and events, call (352) 796-1186.
• Jericho Road Ministries, 1163 Howell Ave., Brooksville, will serve its 14th annual free Christmas luncheon from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 24 at First United Methodist Church, 109 S Broad St. Toys for infants and children, especially for ages 13 and older, are needed. Food needs include turkeys, hams, gravy, pies, green beans, cranberry sauce, butter/margarine and milk, along with paper bags. To donate items for the 400 meals that will be served or delivered, call Pastor Bruce Gimbel at (352) 799-2912, ext. 100.
• Shiloh Problem Solvers will have its first Christmas food distribution from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday in the parking lot at Louie's Bowling Center, 1691 E Jefferson St., Brooksville. Food will be provided for 500 Hernando County families on a first-come, first-served basis. Call (352) 345-9596.
• Shine the Light Ministries is accepting donations of goods and cash to help families in need during the holiday season. Drop off items at 8447 Blackstone St., Spring Hill, or call (352) 279-3449 to have items picked up.
• Starting Pointe Church is having a canned food drive with the Hernando County Family YMCA to fill Christmas baskets through Dec. 18. Donations can be taken to the YMCA, 1300 Mariner Blvd., Spring Hill, during business hours or the Y's 9 a.m. Sunday church service. Cash or check donations are welcome. Call (352) 428-9241 or send email to email@example.com.
• U.S. Marine Corps Reserve's Toys for Tots program, sponsored by Marine Corps League Detachment 708 in Hernando County, is collecting new, unwrapped toys at various locations throughout the county.
Registration for Toys for Tots recipients is available weekdays and Saturdays, through Wednesday, for children ages 6 months through 12 years. Registration times are from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the detachment, 8405 Sunshine Grove Road, west of Brooksville.
Registration must be done in person, and parents and legal guardians must bring the following documentation: driver's license, current utility bill in their name (to establish Hernando County residency), their Social Security card, as well as birth certificates and Social Security cards for each child to be registered. Also, guardians, foster parents or grandparents must bring legal documents or court orders proving custody. For information, call (352) 796-3666 (calls will only be answered during the registration period).
• Jesus and Me Ministries will present its Holiday of Hope "Gifts of Love" Christmas party for more than 100 local children in need from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22 at the Jerome Brown Community Center, 99 Jerome Brown Place., Brooksville. Donations needed include: wrapping paper, toys, clothing, Walmart and GameStop gift cards, and other items for children ages newborn to 17. Items can be dropped off at the community center and at 419 Howell Ave. All gifts are needed by noon Dec. 22. Gift givers are welcome to attend the party, which will include food, music and Santa. Parents wanting to sign up their children for the party must call (352) 345-7285 no later than Tuesday; information needed includes each child's name, age, gender and one gift the child wants.