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    A bigger need for holiday giving

    The Salvation Army is serving record numbers of families this holiday season and their supplies of food and toys are low.

    By AMY ABBOTT, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 20, 2001

    TAMPA -- Record numbers of families are showing up at the Metropolitan Ministries in downtown Tampa in search of food and toys this holiday season, a scene being repeated at charities and food banks across the area.

    "We're seeing about 50 to 100 extra families a day come in for assistance," Metropolitan Ministries spokeswoman Maria Rutkin said Wednesday.

    She estimated there has been a 22 percent increase in needy families over last year.

    The surge began Monday when 100 families more than anticipated formed a line that wrapped around a 15,000-square-foot tent on Florida Avenue where food, toys and relief baskets are distributed, and where people can apply for assistance.

    Some had to be turned away empty handed and told to try again Monday.

    "The working poor want to take care of themselves, but now realize Christmas is here and they need to ask for help," said ministry president Morris Hintzman. "I can stand here today and say this is a crisis."

    A shaky economy, jolted by the Sept. 11 attacks, has plunged thousands of people into dire straits as Christmas approaches.

    And because Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year, he said, many donors are waiting until this weekend to drop off their gifts.

    "But we really need them now," he said.

    Supplies of turkeys and toys for infants will probably be depleted by noon today, he said, although 400 to 500 families are hoping to pick up food and toys in the afternoon.

    Families like the Almedas were lucky enough to benefit from a food basket, a turkey and several toys Wednesday, donations that couldn't have come at a better time.

    "I doesn't seem like Christmas to me," sobbed Michele Almeda, a single mother of two from Seffner out of work since May.

    She has fallen behind on her rent and faces eviction Dec. 27. She has worked several odd jobs to the pay bills, including a $600 correspondence course for computer networking. But the jobs never last more than a few weeks.

    Her son's teacher referred the family to Metropolitan Ministries, and they were given an appointment for 5 p.m. Wednesday to pick up their relief package.

    They joined 5,200 other families registered with the ministry this holiday season, a number that grows daily and could reach 9,000.

    The ministry now says it needs 37,000 more toys by Dec. 24, 10,000 more than anticipated.

    The estimated number of turkeys needed has increased from 8,600 to 9,500. About 6,000 have been collected so far. Money can also be donated. Ten dollars buys a turkey or a toy, $33 buys a food basket and turkey, and $125 provides for a food basket, turkey and toys for a family.

    Across the area, similar lines are forming.

    Organizers at the Salvation Army in St. Petersburg said 650 families pre-registered for food and gift assistance.

    Clients receive a bag of unwrapped gifts bought specifically for their children by donors. An additional bag of food is provided.

    In Hernando County, Capt. Tim Williford said, 400 families took advantage of the holiday help, a number officials barely met now that "funds have been down and requests are up."

    -- Times staff writer Melia Bowie contributed to this report.

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