With only five days to go, local charities are putting out an urgent call for donations to help bring Christmas to families in need.

More than 600 children remain unsponsored in the Sub for Santa program overseen by the United Way of Salt Lake and Volunteers of America. The holiday assistance program saw applications jump by 55 percent this year, an increase of 1,500 children, United Way spokeswoman Marti Money said.

"We're in a bind, we've got a ton of kids," she said, noting that an additional $32,550 is needed to cover the costs of gifts for the 651 children.

With Christmas Day right around the corner, the United Way is asking for cash donations to help close the gap.

"Without the time to get sponsors out there signed up, shopping and all that, we think that we need to get some cash," Money said.

Donations to the Salvation Army are also down this holiday season. Contributions to the organization's Red Kettle campaign are nearly $40,000 shy of where they were this time last year, and more than $100,000 short of the Salvation Army's $350,000 goal.

Capt. James Sullivan, coordinator for the Army's Salt Lake Basin region, attributes much of the shortfall to the overwhelming amount of personal donations that flowed from the community after Hurricane Katrina.

Also key, Sullivan said, is the difficulty the Salvation Army has had in finding kettle workers. Bell ringers are traditionally unemployed workers or the homeless, many of whom have other work this year.

"Unemployment in Utah is at a very low rate, so a lot of people that we had employed in the past already had positions," he said. "So we're really struggling to find workers."

Which is great for the workers, Sullivan said, but not necessarily for the Army.

The Utah State Hospital has also put out a renewed call for sponsors for its "Forgotten Patient Christmas Project," a 40-year tradition at the hospital. One hundred people remain unsponsored in the program, which provides clothing and other gifts for the mentally ill patients to open on Christmas morning.

"The patients here have little or no contact with their family . . . so this is their Christmas," said volunteer coordinator Shawna Peterson. "It's just helpful if they know that people in the community care for them and they're not alone."

Peterson estimates donations this year are only about a fifth their usual amount.

The hospital is also looking for donations to bridge the gap, which will allow hospital staff and volunteers to shop for patients. To donate, call Peterson at 801-344-4254.

Food donations this season have been consistent with last year's numbers, said Amberlie Phillips with the Utah Food Bank. The bank has collected 1.1 million pounds of food and nearly $500,000 in cash through its holiday food drive. Donations for the drive will be collected through the end of the year.

Another bright spot this year has been the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program, which has seen great community support, Sullivan said. Many of the trees, located in ShopKo stores around the valley, have been cleaned of their tags listing the wants and needs of area children.

"We usually have to spend designated donations and go out and do some power shopping," Sullivan said. "This year we will have to purchase less toys for kids, which is very, very exciting."

This year, the Angel Tree program will provide Christmas gifts for 7,300 children. When combined with other programs, the Salvation Army will serve 5,100 Utah families, for a total of 13,000 children.

And as Utahns finish up their holiday shopping this week, Sullivan is confident they will give in the spirit of the season.

"This is our best week, our grandest week," he said. "The people are very, very generous."

To donate:

United Way — Contribute online at www.uw.org or call 801-363-9414, Ext. 110

Salvation Army — Locate a Red Kettle at area shopping locations or call 801-322-1253

Utah Food Bank — Donations can be delivered directly to the food bank, 1025 S. 700 West, or to any Smith's Food & Drug, Jiffy Lube, Wells Fargo or Riverton Motors dealership

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com