Going on a shopping spree for charity

Fallston High, other students get in holiday spirit by giving

Education Beat


The squishy fluorescent green frog puzzled Amanda Kelly.

"This is only $5," the 14-year old said as she held the item in the toy section of Target in Bel Air. "But what do you do with it?" She put it back.

Down the aisle, Ashley Smith perused a set of twin Bratz dolls.

"Oh, look at these! The girls we're shopping for are twins, too! But they probably hate getting everything the same," she said. "We can't do this to them."

The girls made their way to the next aisle, where Stephany Lawhon scanned dolls lining the bottom shelf and scored a hit.

"Look at this. I was going to get this doll for $10 that doesn't come with any accessories," she told her two friends. "But look at this one! She talks! And she comes with all this other stuff, and she's only $5 more!"

Three girls getting giddy during a holiday shopping outing is a familiar sight, but this group was seeking gifts for people they'll never meet.

The Fallston High School freshmen and about 40 of their classmates spent an hour after school last week selecting gifts for the school's Adopt-a-Family initiative, one of several efforts being undertaken by county schools to help needy Harford families at Christmas.

The Fallston program originated last year as a project in an earth science class and quickly evolved into a schoolwide program.

"When people heard what we were doing, they all wanted to help," said Jennifer Richardson, teacher of the science class.

Most of the coordinators from the schools received names of needy families through Mason-Dixon Community Services Inc., a social services agency based in Street. But several, such as Richardson, asked for families close to their schools.

"Typically, the families people help are from Aberdeen or Edgewood," said Richardson, the project coordinator. "But we asked for people in Bel Air, Fallston and Forest Hills. I wanted the kids to impact people in their own community."

The Fallston program will benefit 18 families that include 46 children. Each family member will receive up to $100 worth of gifts, and each family will receive at least a $100 gift certificate for groceries.

About $7,500 was raised through private and corporate donations. Of that amount, about $4,000 will be spent on Christmas presents and the remainder will be used for the gift certificates.

On shopping day, Richardson distributed "profile" cards to the students. The cards contain the child's age, clothing sizes and a wish list (names are kept confidential).

"I write down all the information the parents share with me," said Richardson. "My only instructions to [the students] are to get clothing and to bargain shop."

After they finish shopping, the students check out at one register, creating a line that stretched back into the store.

Richardson's dedication to the program impresses her boss, Fallston Principal Kevin Fleming, but it doesn't surprise him.

"Logistically, I don't know how she does it," Fleming said. "She has an incredible generosity of spirit."

Many students say they look forward to participating because the project gives them the chance to make a difference in the community by helping those who have less than they do. For example, Paul Shiah, a student who lives in Forest Hill, donated $30 to the project.

"I've always had great Christmases," the 14-year-old said. "One year I got a drum set, and another a nice CD player. The kids we're helping might just get a doll or a Power Ranger [action figure] or nothing at all. It makes me feel good to think I am giving them a better Christmas. It's like we're being Santa Claus."

At North Harford Elementary, about half of the school's 550 students volunteered to take part in a program to collect gifts for six families.

Pupils decorate a Christmas tree with tags that list family profiles, then pick tags to use as guides for their gift shopping. They turn in wrapped gifts with the profile information for the recipient on a gift tag. The generic gift tags are replaced with tags bearing the recipient's name, said Melissa Romano, the school's holiday committee chairwoman.

In addition to the donated gifts, the students also raised $1,045, which was used for a sixth family that was added after the tree and the tags had been established.

"We raised the extra money and just went out and bought what they needed," Romano said. "We bought them twin-size mattresses, blankets and toys for the kids."

And the student government at the school collected nonperishable food items that will be picked up by families when they get their gifts.

At George D. Lisby Elementary School at Hillsdale in Aberdeen, a program called Family Support for the Holidays will assist 23 families in the school this year. In this program, every child is guaranteed at least one gift and each family receives food for a Christmas meal.

The 64 gifts are for children ages 5 months to 18 years and were chosen from a tag on the Christmas tree by staff members. Food items were collected from the students. Each family also will receive a turkey and other food items.

"A couple of the families don't have an oven, so we get them cooked hams," said Ana Jakse, school nurse and event coordinator. "We do what we can to meet the needs of the families whatever they may be."

The program arranges for several families to be "adopted" by corporate sponsors or local organizations, such as the Aberdeen Police Department. And several children will receive $20 gift certificates from a local shoe store.

"About 60 percent of our students live in poverty. So we do what we can to help," Jakse said. "The magic and giving that we see is just unbelievable."

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