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Help Needed

Local charities are trying to assist more people in need than ever before

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The telltale signs of Christmas and other winter holidays have been present in your favorite retail establishments for some time now.

However, it's now crunch time, with Thanksgiving over and the latest focus on creating memorable late-December gatherings.

It's also when Tucson's myriad charitable organizations start to wonder whether they'll be able to help all those in need.

With the economy remaining in the dumps, many of these outfits find themselves faced with super-stretched budgets.

The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona has felt the brunt of the poor economic situation as much as any of them. In mid-November, it announced it had to cancel its longstanding tradition of providing holiday food boxes because of a lack of funds and supplies.

"There are so many people seeking assistance now; we just can't do it," Food Bank CEO Bill Carnegie said about the food boxes, which last year went out to 20,000 families and served as a supplement to the organization's regular monthly food-box distribution. "We will be able to add some things to our December boxes, but it's going to be minimal, at best."

With almost 240,000 people seeking assistance from the Food Bank in October—up from 98,000 the same month just four years ago—it will be hard for the Food Bank to do anything more than the bare minimum this winter, despite a massive influx of donations in the past two weeks and an overall increase in donations of food and cash compared to last year, Carnegie said.

"It's very sad," Carnegie said. "The economy really drives us. What we're seeing a lot now is that some of the people who've given to us in the past ... they're now holding on to some of that money they've given because they're uncertain if they'll need it."

Carnegie said he still considers Tucsonans amazingly generous, as evidenced by the 6,600 pounds of food and $113,000 in cash donated during the food bank's Thanksgiving on the Mayflower event last month.

Upcoming events that could also go a long way toward aiding the Food Bank's cause include a citywide Turkey Drive on Dec. 15, and the annual Winterhaven Festival of Lights, which starts Saturday, Dec. 10.

The Food Bank's plight is shared by many other local charities.

For the Salvation Army-Tucson—the outfit responsible for all the bell-ringing around red kettles at stores across Southern Arizona—the worries are centered on toys rather than food. The local version of the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program hopes to collect 25,000 toys for as many as 10,000 children by Dec. 23.

The organization will collect toys through corporate toy drives, a Stuff the Hummers event on Saturday, Dec. 10, at Sullivan's Steakhouse, and Angel Trees at Foothills, Tucson and Park Place malls.

The toys give hope to families that are struggling, Salvation Army spokeswoman Tamara McElwee said.

"It allows the families to focus on the important things, like food and utilities," she said. "We've never been to the point that we had to turn someone down, but if donations are similar to last year, it might mean fewer toys for each recipient.

"What we always wonder is: Can we give those two large, nice toys, or just one?" McElwee said. "And if we try to buy toys, then we have to decide: What program do we pull from in order to do that?"

Like the Food Bank's Carnegie, McElwee said she's noticed that some people who have donated each year have either cut back or, in some cases, joined the ranks of those hoping for assistance.

"Now they're coming in and say, 'I'm sorry. Now, I need help,'" McElwee said. "The donor has become the client."

The local branch of the American Red Cross has seen a downturn in donations in the last few years. Although it does not sponsor a toy or food drive, its needs increase during the winter holidays because of the increased likelihood of families becoming displaced by fire, spokeswoman Jennifer Tersigni said.

"Holidays are the worst time of year for house fires," Tersigni said. "About 25 to 40 percent of our disaster responses are during the holidays."

When such situations occur, the Red Cross attempts to quickly provide support to help a family get back on its feet, Tersigni said. During the holidays, that can mean needing to fill in for Santa Claus, she said.

"It's not something we typically push for, but we will accept donations of new toys," she said. "When people lose everything to a fire, they often lose Christmas and Hanukkah, too."

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