At Easter, there's the Easter Bunny and his baskets. On Valentine's Day, there's 11-year-old Megan Leaf and her "love boxes."
"They're boxes of love for the kids at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center," Megan said. "I just know how it feels to be in the hospital overnight, and to have nothing to do, and kind of be afraid -- not that I was or anything. There's just a place for those kids in my heart."
Megan has had more than the usual share of hospital experiences. She is blind in her right eye and has neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder causing tumors inside and outside the body and more commonly known as Elephant Man's disease.
Last summer, the Forest Hill girl was hospitalized briefly for tests at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center because she'd been suffering unexplained headaches.
Since then, she's spent her spare moments seeking donations to buy toys, which she puts in shoe boxes that she decorates with colorful paint and paper and gives to children hospitalized at the center.
Megan waits until she has 20 boxes ready before making a delivery to the center, so that every child on a particular floor can get a box. She timed her latest batch so it could be delivered today -- Valentine's Day.
In seven months, she's delivered nearly 100 love boxes.
Ashlyn Sowell, a child-life specialist at the Children's Center, says Megan's presents make a lasting impression on the young patients.
"One of the things the children at Hopkins get prizes for is when they've come through an uncomfortable procedure," Ms. Sowell said. "So just to be handed a box full of goodies for no reason at all is a real treat. It's also nice to be able to give something to every child."
Megan says it all started while flipping channels on the television. She heard the phrase "love box" and the idea for the gifts popped in her mind. Knowing she didn't have much money of her own to spend on the project, she began looking for other resources.
She was successful in convincing the manager of the Pay Less Shoe Store in Bel Air to donate shoe boxes for her effort. But trying to convince others to donate money so she could fill the boxes was tougher.
"I decided to go to other big companies to try and get donations, too, but I found that just didn't work," Megan said. "Some say they have to check with their main branch, some were just plain mean, and some said, 'We've already done our one donation for the year.' "
Undaunted, Megan turned to family, friends and classmates at Forest Hill Elementary School for donations or money so she could buy toys forthe love boxes.
Each love box contains a coloring or activity book, crayons, a game, a stuffed toy and other small items, such as pencils with funny tops for boys or necklaces for girls.
Megan estimates she's spent about $75 for the 100 love boxes she's made so far, including the $15 she won for taking second prize in a writing contest sponsored by the Learning Disabilities Association.
Her entry, "What It's Like to Be Learning Disabled," expressed her own frustrations with her limitations.
She wrote: "Usually, you feel your work just isn't good enough. You wonder, 'Why am I doing this?' You try to do the work yourself, but you know you're just going to ask for help. When you are finished, you know it doesn't look correct, but you don't know how to fix it. At times, you feel embarrassed asking the teacher all the time, 'How do you do this?' "
"I'm kind of proud of myself," said Megan, shyly with a smile. "Most kids would probably have spent the money on themselves."
Megan's mother, Deborah Leaf, is proud, too.
"Because she's visually impaired, art is a difficult subject for her," her mother said. "It's not always easy for her to cut and paste, or to cut something in a certain way, and the idea that she's decorated this box is quite an accomplishment. It's her own creativity coming through."
Last week, Megan was having trouble deciding whether to spend the $15 her grandmother sent her for her 11th birthday. She wondered: Should she spend it on herself or the kids at Hopkins?