Charities that play Santa for the needy

Children in some lower-income families may not get much for the holidays this year.

With 46 million Americans on food stamps and nearly 49 million living in poverty, plenty of families across the country will struggle to come up with gifts for the season.

Several charities try to fill that void every year by collecting toys and other items to give to needy families. On a local level, toy drives are run by city firefighters, small nonprofits and other groups.

Some big-name charities collect toys and other items on a national and global scale, too. The Salvation Army distributes new clothing, toys and other items to children and seniors through its Angel Tree program, in which donors pick up paper angel tags with the first name, age and gender of a child in need. The tags can list items a child hopes to receive for Christmas, and donors shop to fill those requests.

The tags usually hang on trees at shopping malls and at participating companies. In Cleveland, volunteers this year are collecting gifts near a white Angel Tree near the Kmart entrance at the Bradley Square Mall. About 600 children and seniors have registered to receive gifts in the program. In Meridian, Mississippi, 770 children registered for the Angel Tree at a local bank. In Washington, North Carolina, Angel Tree organizers hope to deliver gifts to 600 children on Dec. 23.

The Angel Tree program provides toys for about 1 million children every year, said Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, community relations and development secretary for The Salvation Army. Volunteers distribute the gifts to families and often deliver meals at the same time.

"Every child deserves to have a special holiday season," Busroe told CBS MoneyWatch. "For many that adopt an angel, it is deeply personal to be able to give a child the types of gifts that were special for them as children."

Donations have remained consistent through the economic recession five years ago and the recovery since then, he added.

Samaritan's Purse, which helps victims of war, famine and natural disasters worldwide, says its Operation Christmas Child is the world's largest Christmas project. The nonprofit asks people to pack a shoebox with small toys, school supplies, toothpaste and other items for children age 2 to 14. The items are dropped off at participating sites around the country and then sent to regional processing centers and eventually to children overseas. The group has delivered more than 113 million shoebox gifts over the last two decades.

"In most of these circumstances, these are children who have never received a gift before," Randy Riddle, the U.S. domestic director for Operation Christmas Child, told CBS MoneyWatch. While some American kids may hope to get the latest electronics or coolest toys every year, he added, children in poverty-stricken countries are thrilled just to receive a small doll or some school supplies. Even years later, the children can remember exactly what was in their boxes, he added.

The national collection week for this year's boxes took place in mid-November, but donors can still go to the Samaritan's Purse website and donate money to build a shoebox online. The donor selects gifts for the box and can add a letter and a photo. The group suggests a $25 donation for each shoebox.

The Toys for Tots program is also a familiar name at this time of year. The organization partners with Toys R Us, Hasbro (HAS) and Build-A-Bear Workshop (BBW) to collect and deliver toys to children in need. The program was approved in 1995 by the Secretary of Defense as an official activity of the U.S. Marine Corps, and a year later it expanded to all 50 states. Toys for Tots has distributed nearly 500 million toys since it started.

In Danville, Illinois, volunteers held a Toys for Tots fundraiser in November with live music, food and auctions, and asked people to bring a new toy as an admission fee. In Covington, Louisiana, police officers helped collect toys for more than 600 children last year. And in Greenville, South Carolina, two radio deejays held a 28-hour broadcast to encourage listeners to donate toys.

  • Kim Peterson

    Kim Peterson is a financial journalist covering business and the economy. She has written for several online and print publications, including MSN Money and The Seattle Times.