CLEARWATER — Military precision isn't exactly synonymous with charitable giving, but when faced with thousands of needy families at Christmastime, the Salvation Army lives up to its name.
On Monday and Tuesday, the Salvation Army's North Pinellas division executed one of its largest operations of the year: getting Christmas presents to 4,800 children, and providing enough food for 2,000 family dinners.
The effort required as much logistic mastery as it did compassion.
At the organization's Mallory/Powell Social Service Campus on Tuesday, needy families arrived in groups of 40 every 15 minutes.
Like clockwork, parents — many of them laid off and with large families — handed in Salvation Army food and gift vouchers and took a place in line. Weeks ago, another massive effort took place: registering the families, checking their proof of income (or lack thereof).
Dianyas Delgado was one of them. She had three young boys at home, and until a social worker told her about the food and toy drive, the holidays seemed a guilty and gloomy deadline to somehow afford Christmas when she had no money to spare.
"They're young, but they understand I'm going through a lot," Delgado said of her kids, all younger than 10.
Delgado, who worked in the hospitality industry, lost her job earlier this year.
She was greeted by Julia Perron, 27, one of the 115 volunteers who kept the gears of giving in motion.
Together, they walked inside a warehouse-like room. It took on a vibe more Toys "R" Us than soup kitchen; rows of toys — thousands — lined the bustling hall. Soccer balls and baby dolls, toy trucks and stuffed bears.
The two picked out three gifts for each of Delgado's boys: model cars, army men, art sets.
Christmas was materializing.
"They can't get everything they want," Delgado said. "But right now, something is something."
But for those behind the effort, this year has been especially tough. The Salvation Army is making do with more people down on their luck, and fewer donations to work with.
"The volunteers were noticing the bags are a lot less full this year. We used to be able to fit a lot more in there," said Kip Corriveau, the director of social services for the Clearwater Salvation Army.
Money raised from fundraisers and the bell-ringers' red kettles outside supermarkets and pharmacies can only stretch so far.
"This is what we can do," Corriveau said. "There is a point where we can't do anymore."
And children older than 13 are out of luck as well; with iPods and video games topping their Christmas lists, those items are out of reach for a charity trying to reach as many people as possible.
But for the families who received aid, the extra help around the holidays was a godsend.
As Delgado walked out of the building, she received a bag of donated food, and a waiting Publix semitrailer truck was nearby, too. It was laden with 2,000 Christmas hams. Delgado received one.
"We're blessed they're doing this," Delgado said.
And the volunteers, which included several students from St. Petersburg College's Latinos United Club assisting families who were more comfortable speaking in Spanish, took away something for themselves as well.
"As a grandmother, I think about these children," said Pat Donnelly, who lives part of the year in Dunedin. "If this didn't happen, they might not have Christmas at all."
Dominick Tao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-2951.