Comfort and Joy

All year, Mary Sampson helps needy families at Havre de Grace Elementary, but come Christmastime the effort goes into overdrive.

Spirit of Sharing

December 07, 2005|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

One in a series of occasional stories highlighting people in the Baltimore area who exemplify the "Spirit of Sharing," The Sun's annual holiday campaign. At Havre de Grace Elementary School, 8-year-old Carol wants a baby doll that giggles.

Jacob, 6, hopes for books about sharks and dinosaurs. Asia, 5, wants a toy ATM and kitchen play set. And while 7-year-old Albert and his sister Tomasina, 13, would like toys, they would really love a dresser for their room.

In this waterfront town in Harford County, hundreds of holiday requests like these have been answered over the years not by Santa, but by someone mightier. Someone who sees children's needs first-hand. Someone who was born and raised in the community. Someone who watches over children year by year as they lose their baby teeth and sprout upward.

They call her the Angel of Havre de Grace and her name is Mary Sampson -- a name that calls people into action.

For a decade, Sampson has made the holidays a little brighter, a little warmer and a lot cheerier for thousands in the community with her Christmas Joy Project, which provides food, clothes and gifts each year to 50 needy families. This year, the project will help 180 children, many pupils at the elementary school where Sampson is the family liaison.

"She is the heart of the school," says Principal Joyce Stevenson. "She is our eyes into the community. Whatever the need, whether it's just a gentle word, a book to take home, someone to check homework, or a winter coat, Mrs. Sampson is the person you go to.

"There are probably hundreds of students whose lives have been touched by Mrs. Sampson and her good deeds. She is so reluctant to take any credit for what she does, but without her, the holidays would not be possible for many."

A Havre de Grace native who attended the school where she now works, 63-year-old Sampson says her long ties to the community help in identifying the families in need. But beyond that, Sampson says, it is hundreds of local teachers, families, churches, hospitals, businesses and organizations making the rest happen.

But they say it's Mary Sampson who rallies them to action.

"It's really unbelievable," says Colleen Haffey, a member of St. Patrick's Parish, which donates toys and dinners through its Giving Tree food pantry. "She has a reputation. Everybody knows Mary provides, and when she asks, she really needs."

Over the years, a variety of goodies have appeared almost magically at the school.

Bags of clothing and shoes. Winter coats. Boxes of food. Ice cream from the local parlor. Once, a fir tree, gifts and clothing arrived for a family with four boys that lost its home in a fire two days before Christmas. Sampson and her volunteers delivered the packages to the family on Christmas Eve.

Another year, a bicycle showed up with a note, "Dear Mrs. Sampson, We heard you could use this. We just happened to pick this up at a toy store. We know you will find a good home for it."

For Sampson, the project began as a personal passion to help as many as possible. It has grown into a carefully organized mission that links families with dozens of eager sponsors recruited from the tightly knit school, neighborhood and business community.

Sampson starts in October, sending pink sheets home with children referred to her by teachers, the school nurse and guidance counselors. She already knows most of the children in the school who need a little extra help, but the sheets request written information, including names, ages, addresses and a tiny wish list from each child.

Her main job, Sampson says, is making sure parents are involved in their children's education. She cajoles them into showing up for teacher conferences and joining the school book club with their children. She makes sure each pupil comes to class with paper, pencils and proper clothing.

The job she does on her own time, Sampson says, is to show children that the school cares about them outside of class, too. That's why she sets up after-school activities for kids and helps parents find donations -- for a needed refrigerator, furniture or groceries. It is her own way, she says, of making sure no child is left behind.

Around the holidays, the pace simply shifts into overdrive.

By Thanksgiving and through December, the pink sheets Sampson sent home start finding their way back.

Each pink sheet is placed in a thick, blue binder labeled "Christmas Joy Project." Sampson and her volunteers then begin putting out the word to find sponsors for each family.

By the last week of school in December, each family will receive a Christmas meal and extra groceries. Each family member will get an outfit, a hat and gloves. Each child will receive two or three gift-wrapped toys from their wish list. And if there's enough donations, parents receive gifts, too.

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