The students at Mount Hebron High School were robbed at Christmastime, and it became a blessing for the homeless.
"It's the Christmas spirit. It's unbelievable. I just can't believe this week would have turned out like this," said Mount Hebron senior Jason Downs, whose charity drive for the homeless saw a dramatic turnaround this week.
When a thief stole the $500 that students had raised, the community immediately responded -- with more than $5,000 in donations, so far. And Downs says the contributions are still coming.
"Everyone wants to help us out. We've gotten over 100 phone calls," said Downs, 17, who has quickly become something of a Christmas charity symbol in the Baltimore-Washington area.
From those phone calls, Downs says the charity drive's total figure quickly mounted over two days to about 10 times what the students had hoped to raise. And in a sluggish economy, no less.
"I've even had corporations call me up and say they want me to come out and pose with the company president while he presents me with a $500 check," Downs said. "At least four or five people have just said, 'I've got $500 to give you. Where do I send it?'" The scope of the charity project has changed considerably with the increase in money. When the budget for the Dec. 21 giveaway was but a few hundred dollars, students expected to provide canned food, turkeys and blankets to homeless shelters.
But with all the extra money, students expect to buy more items for needy families, including extra food, clothing and possibly even furniture, Downs said.
About 30 Mount Hebron students had originally raised $500 for a food-and-blanket drive for 60 homeless Howard County families, but the money was stolen from a closet at the school last week.
It appeared that a Dec. 21 charity give-away would have to be canceled.
But rather than disappoint the families, the students decided to try raise the money again in the 10 days left.
Downs and one his teachers, Kelley Simon, contacted The Howard County SunTuesday about getting news of the students' plight in the newspaper.
In the next two days, Downs appeared on several television news broadcasts in Baltimore and Washington, cities that seemed touched by the students' efforts.
"A guy called me up first thing Wednesday and said to me that he'd read about what happened and wanted to do whatever he could," Downs said late last week.
"When he told me he was thinking of donating $500, I almost dropped the phone. It's been like that for two days."
As for the original $500, police say they have few leads. The money was left in a classroom closet at the Ellicott City School on Dec. 6, and appeared to have been taken sometime overnight.
No signs of forced entry were found on the door, which contained an old lock that could have easily been unsecured using a flat edge such as that found on a credit card, a police report said. The only key was kept by the teacher coordinating the charity drive.
But the loss of the money started the Christmas wheels turning into a "good omen," Downs said.