Volunteers share gift for adorning presents

Wrapping stations raise funds, spirits

Maryland Journal


When Dameon Robinson approached the charity gift-wrap station on the second level of The Mall in Columbia with two jewelry-sized boxes, the three women behind the table knew just what to ask.

"What kind of paper would you like?"

"Is the price tag off?"

And, most important: "Can we see?"

Robinson proudly showed off two gold bracelets he'd bought for out-of-town recipients, and the women oohed approvingly. Then Ruth Zlotowitz of Ellicott City and Sami Klein and Marsha Ansel, both of Columbia, hurried to get the gifts covered in bright paper, shiny ribbons and fluffy bows.

"You are like Santa's little elves," Robinson told the cheerful volunteers, who wrestle presents big and small from the day after Thanksgiving to the night before Christmas.

The gift-wrap duties are being shared by the National Council of Jewish Women Howard County Section and the Howard County General Hospital Volunteer Auxiliary.

Early in the season, they have plenty of time to chat up customers, as people arrive in ones and twos. But as Dec. 25 approaches, the wrappers find the table getting busier and busier.

The week before the big day, as many as 10 wrappers (mostly women) will be cutting, folding, taping and tying while anxious shoppers (mostly men) line up a dozen deep.

"Last year, on Christmas Eve, we were working in overdrive nonstop," Zlotowitz said.

But Sarah Spence of Columbia said it was that same mad rush of shoppers that hooked her and her bridge group.

"We said, `We've got to do it again,'" she said. "It gets the adrenaline going."

Fortunately for the hospital and the NCJW, it also gets the money going, bringing in several thousand dollars after expenses. Customers are charged a few dollars per box, depending on the size, and donations are welcome.

Elsewhere in the area, the Community Action Agency of Anne Arundel County will be wrapping gifts this month at Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis, and the Harford County chapter of the AMC Cancer Research Center will wrap at White Marsh Mall through Christmas Eve.

In Columbia, NCJW and the hospital each recruit about 150 volunteers. The hospital auxiliary brings in more outside volunteers, including high school honor societies and students seeking community service credits. The council, which uses the funds for community programs such as its backpack buddies food program, relies more on members.

The Jewish women usually work the days closer to Christmas, when Christians want to be home with their families or finishing their own shopping.

Ansel said the wrappers help the customers enjoy the season.

"It frees them to slow down a little bit," she said. "It lets them get back to the meaning of the holiday."

It also saddles someone else with the challenge of wrapping odd-shaped boxes, lumpy purses and baskets, and cumbersome luggage.

Spence's bridge club, which gave up an afternoon of cards to wrap Thursday, recalled with horror the large, heavy microwave oven they had to wrap last year.

Nishi Parekh, a Centennial High School sophomore, said a lava lamp in a cylindrical package was her biggest challenge last week.

Thursday, Parekh and four other teens helped Pat Wortwick of Laurel disguise a gift for his wife - a gold ring with the birthstones of their three children - by putting the box inside a bag inside a big box filled with tissue paper.

"If you give a woman a little box, she knows it's jewelry," said Wortwick, a recycling center supervisor. When his wife opens the gift and realizes it is the ring she has wanted for 10 years, "there will be tears involved," he said.

The volunteers have varying levels of experience, but they try to make the packages look nice.

"The trick is the first piece of paper you put on your package," said Illene Hoss, who has been organizing the volunteers for NCJW for 10 years. "It has to be tight. I cut the paper as close as I can before wrapping."

Several wrappers recommended using a string to measure the package and then the paper. Also, pinching the edges to make them look sharp and adding bows and curled ribbons add to the overall appearance.

Some of the customers - such as Robinson, who lives in Columbia and owns a venture capital company - acknowledge they are wrapping-impaired.

"I am a lousy gift wrapper, and it is for an excellent cause," he said.

Other customers appreciate the convenience.

"I'm actually pretty good at [wrapping]," said Matt Weirich of Silver Spring, as he handed over a diamond necklace for his wife. "But I'm in a time crunch."

Most people are happy to help a good cause. One young man, who had two packages wrapped for $5, gave the volunteers a $20 bill, said Lorna Chesnutt of Columbia. Later that day, another man brought the wrappers a box of chocolates.

"People have been remarkably kind, and some have been generous," Chesnutt said.

Zlotowitz added, "At this stage of the game, people are really in the holiday spirit."


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