As 6-year-old Jack Brown put out cookies and carrots for Santa and Rudolph last night, he knew not to expect much this year.
Times are tough for everyone, his mom told him. Even Santa.
Yet when he peeks out of his room this morning, he'll see Santa came through after all.
A basketball, Hot Wheels, a SpongeBob SquarePants puzzle and a giant brown teddy bear with a Santa hat will be nestled under the Christmas tree.
"We're all going to yell, 'Surprise!' " his mom, Janice Brown, said as she browsed through the stuffed animals at the Dec. 18 Toys for Tots event at Central High School, west of Brooksville. "He's going to be so happy."
Similar scenes will play out again and again in Hernando County this morning after Toys for Tots collected 23,344 toys and distributed them to 4,239 children in needy families.
Smaller organizations, such as Jesus and Me Ministries, the Christmas Angel Program of Hernando County and the Foster Parent Association of Hernando County, also gave out hundreds of toys to children who might otherwise go without.
Some families accepted help for the first time this year as a result of a lost job or a foreclosed home. Other families have benefited from these organizations for years.
Toys for Tots collected and distributed nearly the same amount of toys this year as it has the past few years, said Bob Ross, who has directed Toys for Tots for seven years.
"We really anticipated that the number of families would be up because of the economy," Ross said. "But that didn't happen."
The Marine Corps League of Spring Hill, which sponsors the local Toys for Tots program, began collecting toys more than a month in advance of distribution day.
Volunteers, mostly military personnel and their families, placed 150 collection bins around Hernando County at places such as Sweetbay Supermarket, Bank of America and Dunkin' Donuts.
Hernando residents also left 8,000 toys in mailboxes for the U.S. Postal Service to collect, and Toys R Us and Walmart donated the money for 1,548 toys.
The result is an inventory of toys that would rival a big-box toy store.
For days, volunteers stacked Candy Land, Yahtzee, and Chutes and Ladders 6 feet high. Tricycles, G.I. Joes and Barbie dolls lined dozens of folding tables.
And 300 elves in green hats, also known as Central High ROTC students, carried big black garbage bags and toy checklists as they guided parents to the appropriate tables.
Cheryl Brown, who has two daughters, 11 and 4 years old, said she and her husband lost their jobs within the past two years and found new jobs at significant pay cuts. Her husband also had an expensive ankle surgery and two hospital stays, and the bills have started to pour in, she said.
"Christmas has usually been a big deal at our house," she said. "But it's going to be jarring this year."
JoAnn Munford, who runs Jesus and Me Ministries in Brooksville, collected and wrapped more than 300 toys that went to 125 families at a Wednesday night party.
"The community was gracious this year," she said. "I thank God for what we've got."
As child after child climbed onto Santa's lap Wednesday to pull on his glittery beard and whisper their Christmas wish lists, Santa noticed a few themes, he said with a chuckle.
"They all want Xboxes and the latest video games," Santa whispered. "And I did have one 7-year-old ask for clothes."
Munford delivered toys all day Thursday to families who couldn't make it to the distribution party. She said parents often approach her to say thank you, but she doesn't want too much credit.
"I tell them, 'It's not me,' " she said. "We all came together and made something happen. It's the whole community."
Chemaya Lainfiesta, who has two small daughters and a son, smiled as she watched a man in a Santa hat pull five wooden boxcars behind his John Deere Gator. Her 3-year-old daughter, Maryah, was tucked in the first car, laughing.
A Pasco-Hernando Community College student, Lainfiesta has another two years before she can search for a job as an ultrasound technician. In the meantime, money will be tight, she said.
"This is beneficial because we don't have the funds," she said. "I'm thankful because this is an amazing thing."
One organization that struggled this year was the Foster Parent Association of Hernando County.
Donations were less than half what they were in previous years, said Linda Hoins, who provides gifts for the approximately 120 foster children in her program.
With five foster children and two biological children of her own, Hoins collected small gift cards and bottles of Axe cologne for her program's 30 teenagers.
"Compared to what the little ones got, it's much less," she said. "But the things teenagers want are expensive — iPods and things everyone else has in their high school. It's hard for me, but I do my best."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432