Salvation Army volunteers in Augusta are ringing bells in parking lots that grow colder by the day, encouraging shoppers to drop their change into their collection pots.

In Waterville, at the Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers, workers are packing boxes full of clothes, toys and books.

Area churches involved with an international program called Operation Christmas Child are assembling thousands of shoeboxes full of clothing, toys, and biblical verses.

These groups, and many more like them that hope to bring holiday cheer to families in need during the holiday, ask donors to help fund their efforts every year.

The good news is that overall levels of charitable giving are up this year and expected to keep growing annually as the United States continues to recover from the economic recession that began in 2008, according to an annual report on giving by Giving USA, a national group that tracks charity trends. In 2012, organization reported that giving rose by 3.5 percent to $316 billion over the previous year, and it has grown every year since 2009, even when adjusted for inflation.

The bad news is that individual organizations are still subject to local uncertainties, and a quirk of the calendar may spell trouble for area charities that are trying to brighten children’s holidays.

Christmas calendar problem

People tend not to think about Christmas donations until Thanksgiving is behind them, according to Maj. Karin Dickson, of the Capital Region Salvation Army in Augusta, which oversees efforts in the region, including Waterville.

Dickson said most retailers don’t allow Salvation Army volunteers to ring their bells for charity until Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

The difference between this year and last year on the calendar is subtle, but significant.

In 2012, Thanksgiving fell on Nov. 22, which is 32 days before Christmas. But this year, Thanksgiving falls on Nov. 28, just 26 days before the holiday.

That makes it the shortest possible holiday season, a phenomenon that hasn’t happened since 2002 and that won’t happen again until 2019.

Losing six full days of fundraising from last year makes it difficult for the Salvation Army to fill its goal of bringing food and presents to about 300 families in the Waterville and Augusta areas.

In addition to presents and food, this year, the Capital Region hopes to raise $140,000, the same amount it took in last year. As of Friday, however, Dickson said, only about $5,000 had come in, which she said is far behind the Nov. 22 total from last year.

“This year, because Thanksgiving is coming later, it’s costing us a bit of worry,” Dickson said. “We’re behind last year’s. We haven’t had people come forward to volunteer. People don’t think about this until after Thanksgiving.”

Some of that money goes to round out the Salvation Army’s Christmas present program, while some will go to heat and rental assistance for families in crisis, such as victims of a home fire.

Compressed timelines

The shortened holiday season is also bad news for the Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers, where Christmas Program Director Cristen Sawyer said timeliness is everything.

Every year, the group packs boxes with toys, clothing and books for about 1,600 children in the Waterville and Augusta areas.

The group’s volunteers begin packing in October, and their timeline calls for every box to be packed by Dec. 6, leaving enough time to distribute to families in the two cities on Dec. 11 and 12.

Sawyer’s impression is that, during recent years, the total level of giving has gone up as the economy has improved; but every year, the group struggles to communicate its timeline, which ends just when people are beginning to focus on Christmas.

“By Black Friday, we’re trying to finish up,” she said.

Last year, the organization went into crisis mode when Superstorm Sandy caused some of its partner organizations to redirect their support to children in New Jersey and New York who were directly affected by the storm. Initially, giving to the Waterville group dropped; but publicity about the problem resulted in an outpouring of giving that more than made up for the deficit, putting the Maine Children’s Home ahead of the game.

This year, they’re back to scrambling. With only about two weeks to go, about 500 boxes are not fully packed, lacking items such as clothing outfits, coloring books, pajamas, family board games, and Thinsulate gloves.

“I would like to think it doesn’t take a natural disaster,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer said she expects a flood of donations to come in after the deadline. Those toys will be saved for next year, she said; and in the meantime, the organization will spend about $5,000 trying to bridge the gap to ensure the boxes go out on time.

The timeline is even dicier for Operation Christmas Child, which ends its drive for shoeboxes full of presents on Monday, a few days before Thanksgiving.

Once collected, those presents have to travel farther, from any of nine church relay sites in the region to a collection center at the Calvary Bible Baptist Church in Whitefield, to a processing center in North Carolina and, by Dec. 25, to children in impoverished nations around the world, such as the Dominican Republic and the Philippines.

During the past 20 years, the faith-based group has collected more than 100 million shoeboxes, and it hopes to add nearly 10 million to that total this year.

Area churches came up with 9,000 shoeboxes last year, and they hope to beat that number this year, said Lana McCormick, the coordinator for the Whitefield collection center.

Experience has taught her and the other charities that it’s never too late for a last-minute act of generosity to happen during the holidays.

“Always,” she said, “it seems that the last day is the biggest day.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287 [email protected] Twitter: @hh_matt

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