The kids at Charles H. Hickey Jr. school may be there because they've been bad, but Santa Claus still paid them a visit -- or at least some of his helpers did.
A small band of volunteers gave up their traditional Christmas morning rituals of opening presents and going to church to spread a little cheer at Maryland's school for juvenile delinquents in the Cub Hill section of Baltimore County.
The school's 357 young men, ranging in ages from 13 to 20 years, each got bags stuffed with individually wrapped gifts including socks, toboggan hats, gloves, toiletries and, in some cases, model car kits. Their locked "cottages" or residence units also received group gifts of board games and holiday goodies.
The gifts were delivered amid hugs, holiday greetings and picture-taking led by Christine Poward, the school's volunteer coordinator, and by Pat Hanges, a retired Baltimore County police major who has "adopted" the school as a full-time volunteer.
"It makes you feel good," said Poward, volunteer coordinator for Rebound Inc., which runs the school under contract with the state. "I had not felt so good on Christmas in a long time, until I looked at all those gifts. It makes you feel as though someone cares."
Poward had hoped to arrange for Santa to deliver the gifts yesterday, but couldn't find any employees or volunteers willing to don the red suit. So, gift-giving duties fell to four members of her family she enlisted to help.
Joining Poward were her parents, Gard and Cathy Poward, her younger sister, Beth, and her grandmother, Kit Luber, who live in Ellicott City.
"I got out here more than anything else because of Chris' enthusiasm," said her father.
"We did this instead of going to church," explained Luber. "This feels better."
The gifts were collected by local church and civic groups, including the American Legion and Kiwanis, and volunteers wrapped them. Also helping out was Sister Patricia Mary Bianco, who with Hanges has coordinated volunteer tutoring at the school.
The youths seemed genuinely grateful for the attention, even though a few of the gifts -- a pair of too-small gloves here and a pink and baby-blue knit toboggan there -- seemed to miss the mark.
In Unit 8, remains of breakfast still sat on a round table in one corner of the room as its 26 occupants lined up to receive their gifts.
A smaller boy named Michael at the head of the line, wearing his long underwear, was turned away by the staff and told sharply that he would get nothing until he got dressed.
"Are they going to take care of Michael?" asked Luber. "He's so cute."
But Luber was told by a staffer that Michael was not so cute. He had "knocked a lady down" and stolen her pocketbook at gunpoint.
For all their misdeeds, Hanges said, the boys were desperately in need of what they got a taste of yesterday.
"The most powerful moving force in the world is love," Hanges said, "and this is the season for it."
All have been adjudged delinquent or are awaiting court hearings, Hanges said, but they need treatment rather than simply incarceration. About 80 percent of Hickey's students have alcohol- or drug-abuse problems, Rebound officials have estimated. Many also have been abused and neglected by their families, said Bianco. One student's mother reportedly tried to drown him in a bathtub when he was little.
"I have never met more loving children than these children," said Hanges, who spent 25 years with the county police before retiring a decade ago. Police tend to take a jaundiced view of such troubled youths, she said, but "now when I hear police refer to them as 'little hoodlums,' I get very angry."
"These kids are exciting," Hanges added. "I don't know what they're like on the street, but they're great in here. . . . They're in need of a lot of love."
Some of Hickey's students had earned holiday home visits, but the rest had to content themselves with brief visits by family or phone calls home.
Lance, 14, said he was looking forward to his mother coming out yesterday or on Sunday, the normal visiting day. Uppermost in his mind, however, was his next scheduled court appearance in January, after which he hopes to go home. He was sent to Hickey for a handgun violation, he said.
Besides being the focus of yesterday's gift-giving visits, the youths have been feted at holiday parties staged by local church groups. Baltimore Oriole bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks visited last week, according to Robert Crowley, a youth worker. Each cottage also had a Christmas tree, donated and decorated by volunteers.
Despite such touches, many boys remained painfully aware of their segregation from society.
Randy, 17, from Annapolis, said he missed seeing his young son open presents. Sent to Hickey two months ago after being arrested on cocaine and handgun charges, Randy said he hopes to get released next month. This is his second stay at Hickey, he said.
Darryl, a 15-year-old from northwest Baltimore who'd been at Hickey just three weeks, glumly assembled the orange plastic pieces of a model car kit he had just opened.
Asked what he wanted for Christmas, Darryl replied without hesitation: "Just to go home. That's everybody's wish, though."