Jordan Hernandez was too shy to do much more than fidget and glance at her mom when asked what she wanted for Christmas this year. But the pony-tailed 3-year-old's dimpled smile betrayed her excitement over what was inside the big black sack of toys that she and her mother, Bellarmin Zanotelli, had just received from the Salvation Army.

"It's a puzzle. For me," Jordan said, poking at the corners of the puzzle box stuffed inside the sack. "A Dora puzzle."

That would be Dora the Explorer, for those not up on the popular animated kid's show on Nickelodeon. And quite fitting, given that little Jordan was dressed head to toe in pink and lavender, with a Dora the Explorer appliqué on her long-sleeved shirt.

About 1,200 families like Jordan's, who are struggling to make ends meet, made their way to the Laney College Student Union on Dec. 20 to collect a sack of toys and a basket of food filled with canned sweet potatoes, cranberries, green beans, chicken broth, dressing mix and other ingredients for a traditional holiday meal, courtesy of the Salvation Army.

Zanotelli and her husband have five children, four boys and Jordan, the only girl. Although her husband is working, Zanotelli was laid off three months ago from her telemarketing job where she sold newspaper subscriptions. She drove all the way from Newark to pick up the goodies.

"This has helped a lot," she said, referring to the donated toys that will end up brightly wrapped and placed under the family tree Christmas morning. "Losing my job is kind of making a big difference in our income."

John Covert, business administrator for the Salvation Army, said that in addition to the unemployed, the nonprofit is seeing more and more families that are considered "working poor," with one or more parent working part-time after losing a full-time job.

The goal was to serve 2,000 needy families this year, but only 1,200 families registered for the event in advance at the various Salvation Army churches and facilities in Alameda County. The toy and food distribution was done in Oakland only this year, which meant some people had to travel quite a distance.

Covert said 75 percent to 80 percent of all the toys and food were donated. Holiday food donations were down this year, so the nonprofit filled in the gaps from its food pantries that it uses to help feed families in need year-round. Hundreds of volunteers spent the past three weeks packing food boxes and looking over the applications and matching toys to the child so that each family's bag contained age- and gender-appropriate gifts.

The doors opened at 8 a.m. Dec. 20, and a line of people quickly snaked around the outside of the student center building. The high, deep piles of bulging black sacks of toys that had been arranged and cataloged by volunteers the night before quickly disappeared as families came in and then went across the street to pick up their box of food.

The first 150 families got a turkey with their food box, and when they ran out, the families received a $10 Safeway gift card with their food box.

The center stayed open until late that night so working people would not have to take time off, Covert said.

Mike Borris, 7, a Salvation Army volunteer from San Ramon, stood at the door asking for assigned numbers as families came through and directed them to the appropriate table to sign in.

"I'm having fun, because I get to do stuff and meet new people," the second-grader said. "It makes me feel pretty happy; at least children will get toys for Christmas."

It was Rose Porter's second year getting a helping hand from the Salvation Army. Porter, a widow, said she worked for the Oakland Unified School District before she was laid off. Her son Rodney Green, 12, and nephew Eric Foster, 8, helped Porter carry the goodies to her car. Porter also has a daughter who turned 13 last week. When asked how she manages to get by, she said she just started getting unemployment again, and "just prayer."

"I'm very thankful for this," she said. "It would be hard to tell them they would do without because they are used to getting gifts."

Contact Cecily Burt at 510 208-6441. Follow her on Twitter.com/csburt.

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