In the beginning, they know so little. Just names on a form from Social Services: A single mom and three kids living on Rose Street, boarded-up rowhouses to the right and left.
It's not much, but they can imagine the details. For five years, the custodians at Johns Hopkins University have embarked on this annual odyssey - creating Christmas for a family they have never met.
They know so little, and yet they know enough: There is a family in need.
Megeen Thomas makes a plea to the custodial staff in late November: Would everyone please dig into their pockets, find $5?
It's not an insignificant amount to ask of her co-workers. Their average pay is among the lowest at the university, less than $20,000 a year. Some can remember when times were tough. Times aren't so easy for some of them now.
They're people like Megeen and Sharon Jackson, grandmothers who once were single parents. They're people like Kevin Henderson, a custodian with four children, and Gloria Lawrence, a single mother nearing retirement. She lives just six blocks from the family they will try to help.
"I used to look at the house and look at the kids and ask, how do I make it?" says Megeen, an administrative assistant who has worked in the department for 13 years. She remembers sweet-talking a $25 Christmas tree out of a corner salesmen on Greenmount Avenue when all she had was $15.
They're not so different, the givers and the receivers.
And yet, there's a world of difference.
It comes in the form of a paycheck.
Travis is 13, a homebody who likes books and video games.
Seaniece is 11, into the music of Britney Spears and Mariah Carey.
Seven-year-old Tameka, with pigtails and a sprightly manner, loves Barbies and roller skates. At this moment, she wants to be a singer. But that may change five minutes from now.
These few details about the family are gleaned in a brief phone call with the children's mother, Pamela Hunter. It's three weeks before Christmas, and getting even that information isn't easy: Pam doesn't have a phone. Megeen and Sharon, who do the shopping on behalf of the department, have to call Pam's mother. She hooks them up with Pam.
The custodians know that without them, there won't be much of a Christmas at the rowhouse on Rose Street. Between the welfare-to-work classes she's attending, Pam has told her kids as much. She put a good face on it. They are a churchgoing family and, she told them, that's what Christmas is really about.
She can sell herself on this - it's a holiday to celebrate the birth of Christ, "not about you getting stuff." But kids? How do you make kids understand?
"Mommy don't have much to give you," she told them. "But you know whatever I can give you, I will.
"As long as you wake up and see life, just be grateful for that."
A few days after the phone call, Megeen and Sharon take to the Internet: Bluelight.com for Kmart, walmart.com for Wal-Mart. They collect newspaper sales inserts and plot a strategy, comparing prices with the focus of generals at war.
The custodians consider their annual adoption of a family a point of pride. It's easy to feel invisible on the Hopkins campus, what with all the brainy chem professors and poli-sci majors hurrying by - important research to get to, all-nighters to pull, partying to do - as the custodians empty trash and wash floors. But this adopting a family for Christmas, the way they've organized it and gone all out for the past five years? This they own, so much so that some of the other Hopkins departments are imitating their methods.
The first year, when the custodians called their family to set up a time for delivery, they learned the phone had been disconnected. So another collection was taken up, and the phone service restored. When they arrived, arms full of gifts, the custodians found the house without a single decoration. So they rushed back to Hopkins, to pull the Christmas tree out of its moorings and the holiday bow from the door.
Megeen and Sharon haven't talked to that family, or any of the others whose Christmases they've provided, in the last five years. In a way, they fall in love with each one. But the next year, when a new family appears as names on a sheet of paper, they're smitten again.
Armed with circulars
By the time they pull up to the Wal-Mart on North Point Boulevard in Dundalk in a loaned Hopkins van, Megeen and Sharon have practically memorized their list - and the Sunday sale circulars. Still, shopping will take up most of their eight-hour shift.
Not everybody gave at the office, of course. But by the end of two weeks, with some extra help from managers and an employee or two outside the department, the white envelope in Megeen's purse holds $488.45.
They've already been to Kmart to pick up board games the family can play together. Now Megeen and Sharon head straight for the girls' department, homing in on a small red T-shirt with a sequined star.
Perfect for Tameka, the would-be singer.