THE CALENDAR in Barbara and John Hamman's kitchen shows only four free nights this month. Of course, for a couple with four children between the ages of 10 and 17, this may not be unusual.
But in addition to the children's demands, the Hammans and their family are helping to fix up old houses in South Baltimore, collecting groceries for the Maryland Food Bank and working in their community association.
John Hamman says he's never counted the hours that his family invests in community service, but "we think it's important to give something back."
The Hammans of Hamilton are giving back in a variety of ways. So are the Strassbergers of Towson and the Martins of Perry Hall. For these and many other area families, helping others isn't just a holiday tradition: It is a lifestyle.
Hamman, his oldest son Jonathan, 17, and his oldest daughter, Abigail, 15, have worked with the Light Street Housing Corp., which is renovating four houses in South Baltimore to sell to low-income families. Hamman also works with the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter, where he cooks, registers those who stay there or whatever else needs to be done.
For several years, the family has worked at the weekend soup kitchen at their church, Christ Lutheran on South Charles Street near the Inner Harbor. Hamman and his wife serve on finance and education committees at their church, and his wife is president of the Harford-Echodale-Perring Parkway Community Association. Jonathan holds benefits for the Maryland Food Bank at Gilman High School, where he is a junior.
Each spring, the Hammans pick up litter and patrol the stream at Herring Run for Save Our Streams, an environmental group that monitors urban water quality.
Although Hamman says he hasn't prodded his youngsters into volunteer projects, "if you don't make suggestions, no one's going to do it."
The kind of service families do and the amount of time they devote to it seem to ebb and flow with a family's dynamics -- changing with children's interests, increasing and even decreasing as children grow and move away from home.
When their family was young and growing, Laurel and Jim Strassberger of Towson got involved in the Latin American Parents Association. Now that they have three daughters -- two of them from Chile -- the Strassbergers are veteran volunteers for this adoptive parents' support group, which helps families in this country and needy youngsters in Latin America.
The Strassbergers' older daughters participate, too, writing articles for the association's newsletter, Buenas Noticias, which their parents edit, and helping to send supplies to Latin America.
"We got involved while waiting for Evangeline," their middle and first adopted daughter who is now 8, says Laurel Strassberger.
She and her husband have taught courses for families considering foreign adoptions. She has been the organization's acting president and, for five years, its international relief director. "I've held the offices, but he's certainly helped out with them," she says of her husband.
In the relief work, the Strassbergers have organized and overseen the purchase, packaging and delivery of equipment, toys and medical supplies for youngsters.
In addition to these jobs, "we're constantly getting calls from people who want to adopt from Latin America," she says. For more than eight years, LAPA has "taken up a big portion of our lives."
The Martins and Reiners Kathy Martin says "the whole notion of serving your community . . . started at home" about 20 years ago. Martin, who lives in Perry Hall, fights mud and water pollution through Save Our Streams -- she is a member of the board of directors.
Her parents, Vera and Ray Reiner, who live on the Gunpowder River in eastern Baltimore County, got involved with that organization in its infancy in the early 1970s when severe storms brought so much silt into the river that it was unusable for weeks, recalls Vera Reiner.
"I went to many meetings and helped them with projects," says Martin. "They have been the prime movers."
Now Martin's daughter, Pamela, 9, is getting interested in environmental concerns through her mother's work. "She's gotten her feet wet helping me," says Martin, who teaches workshops on mud pollution and monitoring streams. Pamela also works at the recycling center at the Montessori Society of Central Maryland, where she attends school. Martin teaches a once-a-week course there in environmental studies.
"We're still very interested in the water," says Vera Reiner, though she and her husband now concentrate their efforts on the Oliver Beach Improvement Association.
"You find something that really interests you and put your heart and soul into it," she says. "And you hope you make a dent."