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Australians urged to dig deep for Christmas c -

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ELEANOR HALL: Charity groups around the country are urging Australians to be generous this Christmas saying this year's donations are the lowest in years.

The country's biggest gift donation appeal for children is well down on expectations and the Salvation Army is now ramping up its campaign.

But charity groups say they hope there will be a last minute surge in donations as Lindy Kerin reports.

(Children singing Jingle Bells)

LINDY KERIN: Christmas cheer in Sydney's inner west at the Yeo Park Infants' School.

(Children singing Jingle Bells)

LINDY KERIN: Today the students in kindy to year two have had a visit from Santa.

But it wasn't to get gifts. It was to hand over donations for needy families.

The school's principal is Stacey Furner.

STACEY FURNER: Over the last couple of weeks we've been collecting food for hampers for the Exodus Foundation. So our families have been bringing in non-perishable foods and some toiletries this year as well and those are collected. Santa's come and collected them this morning. He is going to take them off and deliver them to needy families in the local area.

LINDY KERIN: And did you get a lot of donations this year?

STACEY FURNER: Yes, we are always very overwhelmed. We have a very generous community and I think they like to know that they're going to the local area.

LINDY KERIN: The donations were handed over to the Exodus Foundation's Reverend Bill Crews.

BILL CREWS: Every Christmas I dress up as Santa Claus and I come here and it is reverse present thing where every child brings a present for Santa to give to a needy family and the children stand solemnly before me, each one of them, and they go Merry Christmas Santa and they say here's a tin of baked beans or something for a needy family.

LINDY KERIN: As part of its Christmas campaign, the Exodus Foundation also host Sydney's biggest Christmas Day lunch.

Bill Crews says there's no shortage of volunteers to help out on the day but he is concerned about a fall in donations of material gifts.

BILL CREWS: We've got more people coming in need. We've had a 24 per cent increase in people coming for material need in the last two months just umph. So we're getting more people coming. Individuals are giving us a bit less because they're cautious about the financial future. So they are not throwing their money around sort of thing. So they give us a little bit less.

So we've got an increasing number of people, we got people giving us less and then we expect even more people to be coming in need next year when Centrelink starts changing all the payments.

So, we're hit with this triple whammy so people aren't not willing to give, they're just afraid of the financial future - so we have to struggle much harder to find more and more people to help us.

LINDY KERIN: So do you think things, there might a sort of last minute surge in donations?

BILL CREWS: I'm praying so. We at Exodus need to raise a million dollars this Christmas because a lot of the services we give are not government funded you see, because the people we see slip through all the bureaucratic cracks so we slip through those cracks too.

So we have to use this time to raise as much money as we can and the worry is people are so concerned about the future, that they're giving a bit less. So you have to work your butt off to just try and keep alive.

LINDY KERIN: It's a similar story for the Salvation Army - which helps runs the country's biggest gift appeal for disadvantaged children.

Major Bruce Harmer says the target is 500,000 donations, and just a week away from Christmas, they're falling short.

BRUCE HARMER: The K Mart wishing tree is down from the same time last year. We had somewhere around 40,000 additional gifts last year at the same period, so whilst we're certainly concerned about that we're hoping that there'll be a big surge. That's what we need, lots of help to try to get to that target.

LINDY KERIN: And why do you think the numbers are down at the moment?

BRUCE HARMER: Well, for a number of reasons. I certainly think that families are buying for themselves more so than even extended family these days. So to ask the community to not just buy for an extended family but buy for people in the wider community again, is probably proving difficult for many in the community.

LINDY KERIN: Since it began 25 years ago, the wishing tree appeal has delivered more than five million gifts to children around the country.

ELEANOR HALL: Lindy Kerin reporting.