Christmas miracles don't just happen. They have a middle man.

In the rush of holiday shopping at Northwoods Mall this week, Marine Gunnery Sgt. David Jackson and a band of helpers filled big trash bags with children's toys as parents stood patiently in line to receive them.

This is where the giving gets personal. It's one thing to drop a gift into a Toys For Tots donation bin or a dollar into the Salvation Army kettle. But it's quite another to see the faces of those who humble themselves so their children will not have to do without on Christmas morning.

One mother of three clutched a bag of presents for her children, ages 12, 10 and 3, including a small bike, complete with training wheels.

"This is the first time I've ever used this service," said the mother, whose name we'll share only with Santa Claus. "I'm only working part-time and going to school, so this is a real help at Christmas time."

And she wasn't the only one.

The numbers are higher than ever.

Toys For Tots

Jackson, known to all as "Gunny," said the Marine Corps Reserve has collected 35,000 toys in the Lowcountry to help more than 2,000 parents who signed up for the program in October.

Toys for Tots, a national program, is promoted locally by WCBD-TV. This holiday season, Jackson said, more than 4,000 children, up to age 15, will receive the donated toys.

"Once we get enough toys donated, we call the families and they come here to the mall and pick them up," he said.

Up front, where the line was growing, Hazel Cole of the Navy Wives Club checked in parents and handed out bags and bikes to those in need.

"I think the donations were down a little this year," she said. "But we're working up until the last minute on Christmas Eve to buy more gifts and make sure every child gets something."

Not far away, at the Charleston Area Convention Center, the Salvation Army also did its part to make Christmas merrier by assisting 2,300 local families with 4,400 children as part of the Debi's Kids Program, promoted by WCSC-TV.

When their distribution ended this week, the Salvation Army had handed out more than 3,800 books, 3,600 stuffed animals, 487 bikes and more than 14,000 gifts.

This is in addition to about $150,000 the Salvation Army raises in cash kettle donations, which are used to provide food during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The need for social services, according to the Salvation Army, is up 30 percent this year due to the economy.

Debi's Kids

But it's not just buying toys and giving them away. After decades of doing this work, these organizations have become systematic in their ability to serve needy families.

In particular, the local Salvation Army singled out the efforts of volunteers like Pat and Gary McKee, retired computer programmers, who saw an ancient system and worked this past year to upgrade and create a new database for the organization.

And in case you're wondering how it all works, families applying for toys are interviewed and screened. There also is a program, Charity Tracker, that eliminates duplication.

"We all have Social Security numbers of the applicants and we check to see if somebody is double-dipping," Jackson said. "If we come up with somebody on Toys for Tots and Debi's Kids, we call them up and tell them they have to choose one or the other.

"Bottom line, if somebody signs up for two that means somebody somewhere doesn't get something. And we don't want that to happen."

And, to be honest, honesty is the best policy when it comes to asking for this kind of help.

"We don't really ask people what their financial situation is," Jackson said. "Everything we do is for the kids. If the parents come in driving Escalades and wearing thousand-dollar watches, well, that's them. Some people tell us what their financial situation is but we don't ask."

Reach Ken Burger at 937-5598 or