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Charities desperately seeking holiday donations

Local agencies' empty shelves are due to donors' generosity for disasters like Katrina. Many kids could be disappointed.

Published December 3, 2005

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Elizabeth Sanjuan, 6, who wants an aquarium for Christmas, may be disappointed because donations are down at Good Samaritan Mission.
Some local charities in need this holiday season:

14920 Balm-Wimauma Road
Wimauma, FL 33598
(813) 634-7136

2002 N Florida Ave.
Tampa, FL 33602
(813) 209-1060

Various drop-off locations, including all bay area Publix, Big Lots and Best Buy stores
(813) 805-7042

Stations at WestShore Plaza and Westfield Brandon
(813) 841-4601

4000 Gateway Center Blvd., Suite 200
St. Petersburg, FL 33782
(727) 544-3900

550 16th St. N
St. Petersburg, FL 33705
(727) 898-3962


28 Columbia Drive
Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 254-2398 or (727) 821-8961

12425 28th St. N
St. Petersburg, FL 33716
(727) 573-9444

1114 W Cass St.
Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 226-0055

6698 68th Ave. N, Suite B
Pinellas Park, FL 33781
(727) 547-5731 or 547-5712.

BALM - Each year, just before Christmas, 12-year-old Herlinda Sanjuan wakes early in the bed she shares with two sisters, wild with anticipation.

Her family drives to Good Samaritan Mission in Balm, where the three girls stand in line, peeking around the children in front of them and waiting nervously for their chance to pick a Christmas toy.

This year, there may be no toys.

Charities throughout the Tampa Bay area say they are desperately short on donations as the Christmas holiday approaches. Because of a string of catastrophes during the past year - from the tsunamis in Asia to a devastating hurricane season dominated by Hurricane Katrina - many local donors appear tapped out.

"Usually way before Thanksgiving, people start bringing stuff and we set aside donations," said the Rev. William Cruz, pastor of the Good Samaritan Mission, which helps farmworking families in southern Hillsborough County. "Nothing has come yet."

As the flow of donations has dried up, a mixture of dread and anxiety has descended upon charities throughout the region.

Donations to Help A Child Inc., in Pinellas County, are off 30 percent this year, said executive director Patsy Buker. She knew she had trouble when her group's biggest fundraiser of the year fell two weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

"People saw these horrible images on television, and they felt they had to help, and I'm very glad they did," Buker said. "In child protection, we can't show abused kids on television. So it's hard to give people a full sense of how desperately these children need help, of that fact that right in our own back yards, children are suffering longer and more cruelly than the kids caught in the storms."

"It's the worst I've seen," said Debra Hoffman, an organizer for the Sincerely, Santa program, which annually provides donated toys and clothing to thousands of poor and at-risk children across Hillsborough County.

She said the group has seen a 75 percent drop in monetary contributions and a 50 percent drop in the number of people picking up wish-list letters from children that are posted at WestShore Plaza and the Westfield Brandon mall.

With only a few weekends left until Christmas, she must simply wait and hope.

"I'm concerned," Hoffman said. "I'm sure hoping there are a lot of shoppers out this year. I've got my fingers crossed."

"If (donations) are not picking up by next weekend, we'll be concerned if there's going to be enough."

-TRACY KLOUSER, Metropolitan Ministries spokeswoman

They are also crossing their fingers at Metropolitan Ministries, the faith-based, nonprofit Tampa charity. In the 10 days leading up to Christmas, officials there expect to feed about 7,000 poor and homeless families with a holiday food box that includes a turkey and gifts for children.

Problem is, financial donations have faltered this year.

"We are seeing a lot of donor fatigue. It definitely is a worry," said spokeswoman Tracy Klouser. She points to rising gas prices, the busy hurricane season and, of course, Katrina.

"Katrina was such an unbelievable tragedy," she said. "Many people stretched themselves to give what they could. That has hurt us, I think."

As at other charities, Klouser said the next week could determine how many people the organization can help this season.

"If (donations) are not picking up by next weekend, we'll be concerned if there's going to be enough," she said.

Debra Shade, president and CEO of Neighborly Care Network of Pinellas County, says donations are down 52.54 percent this year, and the number of new donors - people contributing to the senior-care agency for the first time - has fallen from 700 in 2003 to 440 last year to 226 so far this year.

"Where we're taking the biggest hit is among smaller donors who are on fixed incomes and donated elsewhere this year," Shade said.

Many of the large charitable organizations, such as United Way, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, held massive national campaigns that siphoned a lot of money out of the community, Shade said.

"People in this community are very giving, but they can only give so much, and when it comes to the end of the year, there's no more left to give," she said.

At least for now, the children who rely on the Good Samaritan Mission are oblivious. They are dreaming big, asking for presents like iPods and aquariums full of fish. Meanwhile, the adults stare at the bare closets and fret.

The mission relishes the chance each year to give not only toys, but also school supplies and clothes. But so far, it has nothing. Already 1,500 children are on the mission's toy list. That number could reach 3,000, not to mention the hundreds of children the mission hopes to help at La Estancia, the apartment complex where the Sanjuan family lives in Wimauma.

"A lot of people have been moved by Katrina and all these things the past six months, so I understand," William Cruz said. "But sometimes people need to be reminded that though we understand the hurricanes and the suffering they caused, people are hurting year in and year out."

His wife says they trust that God will provide, that the phones will finally start ringing.

Still, Dora Cruz says, "I'm scared. ... They have not called."

--Times staff writer Jean Heller contributed to this report.

[Last modified December 3, 2005, 06:13:42]

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