Just when the threat of war, a record number of homicides and a sagging economy appear to be dampening the spirit of the holidays, along comes a person like George Lassane.
Two weeks ago, Lassane launched a one-man drive to collect clothing and toys for infants who have been abandoned by their mothers at Howard University Hospital.
Lassane's effort, called Project Uplift, is but one of scores started in the Washington area in recent weeks to help make the holidays more festive for the less fortunate.
The deeds have been small and large. Some have been hugely successful. Most of the known holiday programs have been taxed by an increase in requests for help. A few tries almost fizzled because, for some reason, no one wanted to help.
In some cases, like Lassane's, all it took was a little thought and a desire to put the needs of others first.
Lassane loves children, and he said it has pained him to see so many of them dying so young. "I think that if we want to preserve tomorrow, we have to do what we can to help children today," said Lassane, 28, an aide in the public affairs office at Washington Hospital Center. "And we might as well start with the youngest."
A gift from the 15-member news department at Black Entertainment Television came about in a similar simple way.
BET news employees traditionally exchange Christmas gifts. But this year, they decided to donate the money -- about $200 -- to a fund for the children of Clarine Collier-Wilson, who was fatally stabbed in front of her daughters in Adams-Morgan in late November.
"We just decided that her children could better use the money than we could the gifts," said Sheila Douglas, a BET news producer.
Sacrificing holiday office parties or gift exchanges to help others is a popular idea.
Employees and management at Freddie Mac, a national mortgage lender, dropped plans for the company's annual $100,000 holiday party and chose to donate the cash -- $50,000 of it in the Washington area -- to youth programs.
And it spurred a fund-raising drive at Unique Personnel and Temporaries Inc. for McKenna Houses, which provides shelter and counseling for homeless people.
"We usually have a big Christmas party for ourselves, with tuxedos and everything," said Mark A. Story, Unique's director of sales and marketing. "We decided not to this year and to donate the money instead."
The company's president wanted local companies to raise $10,000 for McKenna Houses. But that plan came close to failing until the president of Unique decided to donate cash because the money raised fell short by $9,000.
"At first I thought that people are starting not to care, that they are becoming desensitized to the homeless," Story said.
But he soon realized what other people organizing holiday giving this year have found: that fears about a worsening economy and accompanying layoffs and firings are taking a toll on donations.
The annual Toys For Tots campaign had suffered a 96 percent drop in donations compared to last year before special public appeals helped the Marine-led toy drive reach its goal last week.
Cash donations to the yearly food drive by public safety agencies in Prince George's County are down about $5,000 from last year. The Salvation Army reports fewer donations of cash and canned goods this year.
"People are getting scared," Story said. "They are thinking that if I give this $100 now, I might need it in a few months when I lose my job."
Still, traditional holiday givers like the Salvation Army are finding ways to meet the demand.
The Salvation Army toy store in Hyattsville for the first time took referrals of 27 families from Charles County, Md. That is in addition to an increase of 200 families from Prince George's County.
In Montgomery County, the Holiday Food Basket Committee estimated an increase in referrals from 4,000 to 7,000. Organizers expected to meet that need because of first-time donations from groups such as the I-270 Partnership.
That organization of businesses in the development and real estate industry donated 100 turkeys to help feed low-income families.
But despite the economic hard times, the spirit of giving around the year-end holidays makes it easier for Good Samaritans to do what they want: Help other people.
Lassane said he is glad of that. His office at Washington Hospital Center is filled with blankets, diapers, toys, dresses and suits, and car seats.
"I haven't had to beg anyone," Lassane said. "I can't believe just how much people are willing to give. It's overwhelming."
In Sterling, the Rev. Charlie Grant helps run a volunteer food bank that provides groceries to needy families year-round. During the holiday season, he gets more donations and feeds more people, most of them homeless.
Grant and other volunteers from the private Emergency Housing Alliance and the ecumenical group LINK regularly drive to a Safeway warehouse in Washington, pick up dented cans and bashed boxes, store them in a small building in eastern Loudoun County and distribute them a box or trunkload at a time.
Grant, a minister who runs a print shop and Christian bookstore, says he is "glad for the help that we get at Christmas time," when many in the community offer additional assistance. "I tell people we're doing the same thing the 364 other days of the year," he said. Staff writer Steve Bates contributed to this report.