At the Camden Rescue Mission, the Rev. Al Stewart is facing a tough decision tonight.

He's collected about 2,500 toys for needy children from Camden and other South Jersey communities for the mission's annual Christmas party. But 6,000 children are registered to receive gifts.

Should Stewart hold the party as scheduled on Saturday and give out the toys he has - or postpone the event until he can collect more?

"The party will be rescheduled unless we get a miracle," Stewart said, "and God knows we believe in miracles."

The South Camden mission, along with many charities and hunger-relief agencies across the Philadelphia area and the nation, have received more help requests this season than last because of the economic downturn, charitable groups say.

But organizations such as the Camden Rescue Mission and Salvation Army of Philadelphia say donations are not keeping pace.

The demand for food also has increased. Philabundance, the largest hunger-relief agency in the region, said need rose 35 percent, and the Food Bank of South Jersey said it went up 41 percent.

Early survey results of more than 200 nonprofits across the Philadelphia region this fall show 45 percent indicating they're in worse financial shape than they were six months ago, said Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University's School of Business.

"It's pretty much the economy; it's affected the spirit of Christmas," said Stewart, mission pastor. "From where I'm sitting, it's kind of devastating.

"People have moved from [being] 'haves' to 'have-nots,' and we generally depended on the 'haves' for toys," he said. "Now they need help."

The mission has noticed other demographic changes this year, too.

"Ninety percent of the children [at the party] used to come from Camden," Stewart said. "Now, 80 percent of those coming are from Camden. The rest are from Cherry Hill, Bellmawr, Gloucester City, Westmont, Westville, and Blackwood.

"We haven't had clientele from those areas before. But people are out of work. Their houses have been foreclosed on. Life has changed for them, and they're looking for emergency food, clothing, shelter - and toys.

"I don't think we can afford the luxury of letting the economy steal our Christmas," Stewart said. "We're battling it and we haven't given up."

Stewart and his wife, Mercedes, said they were inspired to work harder by the Santa letters they receive from children. "There's a lot of hopelessness in the letters," said Mercedes Stewart. "A lot of kids are asking Santa to bring money to help with household expenses, clothing, blankets, and socks instead of asking for toys they really want."

In Philadelphia, the Salvation Army also has seen changes in the area's needs because of the economy. The income from the traditional red kettles is up 15 percent, and the income from solicited and unsolicited mail-in donations is flat - but needs have increased 30 percent over last year, said Chaz Watson, the group's director of development.

"The need far exceeds the increase in giving," he said yesterday. "We're scrambling to make sure we have enough to take care of the families who have come to the Salvation Army for help."

He said the Salvation Army of Philadelphia is trying to help 10,000 families, including 30,000 children. "We definitely have a shortage of toys, especially for 12- to 14-year-olds," Watson said. "People think of the little kids, not the older ones."

In New Jersey, the Camden Rescue Mission began its efforts months ago by sending out letters to hundreds of past donors in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland.

It also has collection points at the mission at 1634 Broadway, Mall Chevrolet on Haddonfield Road in Cherry Hill, and Carlton Insurance on Kings Highway in Cherry Hill. The mission's Web site - www.camdenrescuemission.org - also is receiving traffic.

The toy donations "are not as brisk as they were a couple of years ago," said Jim Fisher, Mall Chevrolet's controller. "But it picks up good near the end.

"We ask every employee to donate something," he said. "It's a worthy cause. . . . Anything we can do for the kids."

Saturday's scheduled Christmas party at the mission will be the 21st. More than 130,000 toys have been given out over the last two decades.

"We have terminated applications for the party, but the phone keeps ringing," said Stewart. "We're just getting ready for the party and doing a lot of praying."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.