Clovis News

Valley residents step in to help strapped charities

The economy may be playing Scrooge again this season, but with Christmas just a few days away, local elves are stepping in to help, officials with Fresno charities say.

Charitable groups such as Toys for Tots, Angel Tree and the Marjaree Mason Center say donations were way down this year. But each received last-minute help to provide gifts for Fresno County children.

"In Fresno, more than any other town I've lived in, people come to the rescue to care for their own," said Linda Dippel, volunteer and event manager of United Way of Fresno County, which coordinates Toys for Tots with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Eleventh-hour donations included several cases of Barbie dolls to the Toys for Tots campaign and a $10,000 donation to Angel Tree from a group of supporters.

Last-minute help also is on the way to the Marjaree Mason Center, a Fresno shelter for victims of domestic violence, in the form of 50 cases of food and more than 50 toys from M.C. Home Rescue, a nonprofit agency.

One of the reasons donations were down this season is that some businesses haven't been as generous as in the past, Dippel said.

About two dozen companies have reduced their Toys for Tots donations, including one firm that cut its regular $5,000 donation to $500 this year.

Toys for Tots distributed 80,000 toys this year -- down from 140,000 last year, said Marine Sgt. Christopher LeCureux, the program coordinator.

After missing last year's goal by 10,000 toys, the effort fell 50,000 short this year, he said.

But it could have been worse, Dippel said, if not for last-minute donations like the "couple thousand" Barbie dolls delivered Friday night by Don Napolitano, the authorized Mattel dealer in Fresno.

Other charities were facing the same drop in toy donations.

One went to desperate measures to recover.

"This is the first year I've had to call what I call my friends-and-family list," said Joe Avila, executive director of Prison Fellowship Ministries, which sponsors Angel Tree, a program that gives gifts to children whose parents are in jail or prison.

The 15 people he called donated $10,000 within a week, but the charity also had to take about $2,000 from its own coffers, he said.

With that infusion of cash, the Angel Tree project was able to give presents to about 8,300 children in Fresno County, surpassing the 2009 total of about 7,300.

Each child receives two presents: clothing and a toy.

Last year, The Salvation Army's Fresno branch had to take $13,000 from its budget to buy enough gifts to meet requests, but this year its Star Tree program got a shot in the arm from J. C. Penney's online donation program, operating for the second year.

The program allows donors to contribute to Angel Tree via the store's website.

"We had at least a 400% increase this year from their online giving," said Dwaine Breazeale, the Army's Fresno coordinator.

"We're grateful for anything we get."

On Tuesday, The Salvation Army distributed gifts to 10,000 children in Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties, with about 7,000 of those going to Fresno County children, Breazeale said.

Meanwhile, a group of high school students recently stepped in to fill a giving gap, on a smaller scale.

Officials find that older children -- like those in junior high and high school -- are the hardest to match up with gifts.

"Absolutely, because everybody wants that cute little kid," Avila said.

Children ages 13 to 17 "are harder to buy for, and it's more expensive."

Students in Cliff Nitschke's history classes at Clovis North High School adopted five teens from a Christmas wish list and pooled enough money to buy each an iPod.

His students hadn't been aware that the need existed, Nitschke said.

"They had so much fun," he said, helping others their age.

"They actually wrote me 'thank you' notes, thanking me for the opportunity to do something like this."