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Even Santa's helpers have fallen on hard times. In fact, for the first time in its 21-year history, Spokane's Tree of Sharing ended without filling all its gift orders. Other groups, facing the same grim prospects, are hoping for a Christmas miracle.

"We're going to be totally out of business unless we get a bunch of donations soon," says Staff Sgt. Stuart MacCracken, coordinator of the Toys for Tots program, which distributes presents to needy children.

It's not the work of the Grinch, but rather the naughty economy and a sizeable drop in giving that threaten to spoil Christmas for many of the area's poorest families. Donations continue to lag while the number of impoverished rises, according to local groups that serve the poor.

"Many people who have given to us in the past are now recipients of the program," says Dru Powers, coordinator of the Tree of Sharing. "There are so many people out of work, and when you're in that situation, it's kind of hard to justify buying gifts for someone else."

Like many holiday-related programs, the Tree of Sharing's focus is on the poor, the sick and the disabled. This fall, 50 community groups submitted the names of about 8,000 people, 300 more than last year. The names were then put on Christmas trees in the malls, where shoppers could choose one and return with the indicated present.

But as the program closed down on Sunday, 770 of those names still remained untouched on the trees. Powers, operating on almost no sleep, refuses to give up; she says she is still trying to raise enough cash to purchase the remaining presents.

"I'm not going to admit that I haven't made it," she says. "I refuse to."

At Toys for Tots, the atmosphere is no less urgent. The Marines, who run the program, and other volunteers scurry about -- lining up gift-filled bags, doling out those that are ready and taking down new orders. Already, organizers have received requests from 3,200 families and expect at least 1,200 more, all of whom live near or below the poverty line.

At this point, however, there aren't nearly enough toys on the shelves to meet the demand, MacCracken says. Toys for infants, ages 0 to 2, and children, 10 to 11, are practically gone. Cash gifts have declined as well, he adds, and if not for $15,000 in reserved funds, the shelves would be long empty.

MacCracken blames, in part, the shorter holiday season: Thanksgiving came so late in November that organizers got off to a slow start. "We're hoping the word will get out and things will pick up," he says.

Organizers will continue to hand out presents up to 2 pm on Christmas Eve. Until then, people can drop off toys at local fire stations, the Navy and Marine Corps building at 5101 N. Assembly St. or at the program's headquarters at 102 E. Francis Ave.

The impact of stingy holiday donations affects not only what is under the trees of many poor families this Christmas, but also the services that will be available to them in the coming year, says Mary Savage, development director of the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery. Initial estimates show financial contributions to the nursery have dropped by 20 percent.

"December is just a critical month for nonprofits and charities," Savage says. "It's make-or-break time. It's really the only time that many people give."

The nursery provides emergency respite care for young children and, during the holidays, gives out gifts to client families. On Saturday, there's a toy drive benefiting the nursery at The Shop on 924 S. Perry St.; bring a new unwrapped toy or a cash donation and get a free picture with Santa Claus.

In Spokane Valley, charity and community groups are struggling with the same challenge, trying to make each dollar go a little further. In response to record numbers signing up to receive gifts, workers at the Spokane Valley Community Center held a meeting last week.

They debated their options as their list grew to more than 800 families, representing 2,900 people. They considered whether to leave out certain age groups, like teenagers -- so that they could at least give something to more children -- or whether to cut out household items for the parents as a way to save money. In the end, they chose neither.

"The talk went back and forth," says Mollie Dalpae, executive director of the community center, "and we decided that we just had to close it off."

Organizers at the community center started a waiting a list, now 70 families long, preferring to do that rather than make promises that they couldn't keep, Dalpae explains.

"How fair would it be," she asks, "for a family to count on us, sign up and come down here and then there not be enough for them?"

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