Many families are struggling this year, more than ever before.

But Friday, several hundred were given the opportunity for a merrier Christmas,

Plus, additional families will receive unexpected help in just a few days.

The assistance is being provided through cooperation among two groups, the Tamaqua Salvation Army and the Schuylkill-Carbon Detachment 626, United States Marine Corps League's Toys for Tots program.

"The need is great," says Mayor Sharon Whispell, Salvation Army, who's been dealing with these situations for the past 22 years.

Her organization hosted the distribution at regional headquarters on West Broad Street throughout the day.

The local Salvation Army distributed toys, coats, knitted caps and other items as part of the Angel Tree program.

"We're serving 370 children today," said Dina Depos, program coordinator, who registered recipients along with volunteer Mel Latham, Lansford.

But perhaps even more importantly, the Salvation Army handed out fixings for 900 complete ham dinners to families in Schuylkill and Carbon counties.

The need reaches deep," said Whispell.

"I had more phone calls this week and so we'll be doing a Secret Santa on Monday," she said. An $800 gift from Tamaqua Area High School students, funds raised during the school's dress-down day, will give the effort a boost, said Whispell.

The items distributed are brand new, they're not used or pre-owned.

"The toys and coats are all new," said volunteer Debbie Daderko, Coaldale. "There are more people this year than last year because the need is so great," Daderko confirmed.

Other volunteers worked outdoors, such as Ed Sassaman, active member of the Tamaqua American Legion and Tamaqua fire police.

Sassaman stationed himself near the front door where he used a cart to deliver boxed toys and food supplies to recipients' cars. The walking was tricky due to recent snows, and Sassaman was kept busy all day.

"I'm doing it to help people out," he told the TIMES NEWS.

In some cases, the volunteers themselves were dealing with difficult situations at the home front.

For instance, Steve Mau, Summit Hill, was on hand to help distribute boxes even though he has concerns of his own.

"I'm here because I have the time to do it," said Mau. "I'm laid off from Lehigh Anthracite and figured I'd come down and lend a hand. There are a lot more people worse off than I am," Mau added. He was assisted in chores by daughter Stephanie, 19.

Volunteer Debbie Nice Althouse, Tamaqua, sat in her wheelchair and handed out food supplies while Andy Leibenguth tended to various details at all corners of the gym.

Joining the Salvation Army were members of another large-scale program of aid and generosity, the Toys for Tots volunteers of the local USMC Detachment.

The two programs operated side-by-side in the large gymnasium, working in unison as they greeted recipients. The waiting line snaked through the chapel, down a long access ramp, through the lobby, and down West Broad Street.

According to Cheryl Laub, Mahoning Valley, program director, the Detachment expected to supply toys to 162 families who'd registered for assistance.

Last week during the Saturday snow storm, the Detachment also distributed toys to 461 families who turned out at Salem Bible Fellowship Church, Lehighton.

The numbers are staggering. Some 3,700 toys were purchased and donated, with distribution to registered families coordinated by Detachment members Jim and Cheryl Laub, Paul Corinchock, Joe Balogach, Tom Fredericks, John 'Doc' Suzadail, Eddie Glassic and Leon Frohnheiser, all USMC veterans.

Volunteers noticed that sometimes assistance is something other than a toy, box of food, or a canned ham.

It can happen in an unexpected, poignant moment, they said. People often need things we don't necessarily expect.

"Sometimes they need to talk," said Corinchock, indicating that the Detachment is prepared to deal with whatever needs to be done.

When people struggle, help can be as simple as a smile, an attentive ear, or a warm heart.

Sometimes they'll even step forward and hug one of the Marines.

"They'll tell you their stories. It's touching," Corinchock said.