HOLIDAY — Rebecca Karpel remembers her own childhood visit to "the North Pole," a colorful Yuletide attraction with a magical toy shop that ignited her imagination.
This year, though, the holidays aren't quite as bright for Karpel, 30, and her family. She lost her job and her apartment this fall. So she and her four children, ranging in age from nearly 2 to 13, have been staying with family and friends.
"The little ones wonder if Santa is coming," she said, adding in a low voice, "They're all worried. We're struggling every day. It's hard. I just want to make things better for my children."
As Karpel visited Metropolitan Ministries in Pasco this week for items from the food pantry, she learned about its annual Holidays of Hope program, which provides toys and holiday food boxes to those in need.
But the program, which has pledged to help 2,200 Pasco families this holiday season, is itself in critical need, woefully short of the donations to help everyone on the list.
"The first of our four holiday distributions is this Sunday, and we don't have enough toys to make it through that day. We have less than 15 percent of the toys we need this year," said Nancy Dougherty, associate director of outreach at Metropolitan Ministries in Pasco. "We are in dire need."
The agency needs toys for all age groups, including cribs and early learning toys for infants, bouncers, baby dolls and preschool play sets for ages 1-4, and fashion dolls, electronic games, building sets and arts and crafts for ages 5-11. The most needed gifts are for kids ages 12-17, which could range from journals to CDs and DVDs, sports balls to makeup and hair accessories.
Donors also can collect food items to fill Boxes of Hope holiday food containers, which can feed a family of four for about three days. The boxes typically include turkeys, boxes of cereal, cans of fruit, vegetable and yams, bags of rice and boxes of potatoes.
"Some of these children would not have any concept of Christmas if the community didn't step up to help them," said the Rev. Dan Campbell, director of the Pasco operations of Metropolitan Ministries. "Often the parents spend what little money they have on essentials, with nothing left over for Christmas presents. Others overspend for the holidays, spending money they don't have just so their children will have toys for Christmas."
If sufficient donations do not come in, Campbell and other staff members plan to dig into their own pockets.
"We've pledged to help these 2,200 families," he said. "We're not going to let them down."
Longtime friends and Pasco residents Noreen Hemmen and Jackie Swarm dropped off about 30 toys Wednesday morning.
"My brother just passed away and I was feeling down," Swarm said. "I called up Noreen and said, 'Let's go shopping for the kids. It will make me feel better.' "
Swarm donated her purchased toys in the name of her brother, Bob Swarm.
Toy donations are being sorted and shelved in a special holiday shop at Metropolitan Ministries, under the direction of volunteer Jean Howell. On scheduled distribution days, parents can tour the brightly decorated shop with a personal shopper, listening to holiday music and admiring ebullient decorations as they select gifts for their children. Mitchell High School student volunteers will be on hand to wrap presents.
A Christmas craft activity will be offered in a separate room to keep the children busy while their parents shop.
"Parents get to choose the gifts their children will receive," said Dougherty. "We call them by a name, not by a number. We want them to be able to shop with dignity."
Karpel signed up Wednesday for Holidays of Hope. And as she looked at the displays of dolls and other playthings, she was reminded of that magical toy shop she visited as a child.
"Now I know my family will have food and gifts this year," she said with a smile. "They'll have something for Christmas."