For Elaine Ziegler, the holidays began on Dec. 26, 2006.
That's when the Bel Air resident started Christmas shopping, looking for marked-down red stockings and items to fill them. In the months that followed, she checked clearance racks for sale-priced small toys, stuffed animals, baskets, backpacks and little purses.
"After Christmas, I go to the half-price sales and buy, buy, buy for next year," she said.
The 66-year-old grandmother is not seeking the perfect gifts at a bargain price for family members. Instead, she's gathering presents that will go to hundreds of needy children in Harford County and the region. For decades, Ziegler has run a toy giveaway at Bel Air United Methodist Church.
In addition to the purchased gifts, the program receives used toys from parishioners, who have donated enough items this year to fill two rented tractor-trailers. That's a contrast to the program's start 36 years ago, when Ziegler and a handful of volunteers refurbished seven boxes of donated toys in one night and delivered them in one day.
These days, it takes 10 days and dozens of volunteers to prepare the toys.
"It is a project built on faith that we will get enough donations and enough people will help us," she said. "I really do it all year long with many volunteers."
When the gifts are ready to go, the workshop is transformed into a toy shop where teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and families - people who know of needy children - come to pick out gifts to be presented to the youngsters on Christmas.
The program can be an all-consuming endeavor for the parish. By November, a small storage building on the church grounds is filled with purchased items and any usable leftovers from years past. Then Ziegler calls in the tractor-trailers. Within a month, the congregation fills them with donations that are mostly gently used.
On the day after Thanksgiving, volunteers convert the cavernous church hall into a toy repair shop. Stacked metal chairs divide the space in half, with one side for restored items and the other for works in progress. Bikes are tagged with lists of what parts are needed. Puzzles are assembled to make sure no pieces are missing, and electronics are repaired.
So many items were donated this year that Ziegler finally posted a sign at the hall entrance: "No more toys until 2008. We need baskets and batteries."
"We believe Santa Claus comes in many forms," said Katherine Heinz, Ziegler's daughter, who has helped with the giveaway since she was 2 and has the next generation of the family in training. While Heinz sorted through puzzles and books, her 3-year-old daughter, Amy, set a tea party for two dolls and tried out a few riding toys.
"We make the toys as good as new as possible," Heinz said. "This is the hall for work."
Nearly all the items are usable with a little work. Everything is scrubbed clean - laundering the donated stuffed animals required 55 loads in a heavy-duty washing machine.
Years of experience have helped volunteers come up with creative combinations, such as the dozens of layettes for newborns, each with a receiving blanket, books, toys and a rattle, or the gift-wrapped combo of a stuffed animal and a matching storybook.
"Hopefully, we are helping kids to read," said Ziegler.
Ziegler saves spare parts, pieces for games and puzzles, and assorted other items from year to year, storing them in dozens of labeled bins.
In one bin, volunteer Lisa Caudill found the missing green man she needed to complete a Candy Land game.
"It's fun finding the missing pieces," she said. "Or you can put one game together from two, instead of throwing everything away. If directions are missing, you can find them online and print those out."
Sometimes, a child's expertise is needed to figure out a toy. When the Cub Scouts helped out one evening, they deftly put together action figures and got a Barbie Fairytopia car working - a task that had stumped several adults.
"It's important for kids to start learning to do," Ziegler said. "This is more involved than sending in a can of food."
By the end of the week, everything is organized into categories by age and gender, so "shoppers" know where to go.
"It's really organized chaos," said volunteer Donna Becker.
Volunteers open the hall to school and day care personnel, social services agencies and other churches, most of them in Harford County but some in Baltimore County and Baltimore City. Ziegler sent out at least 50 invitations to the hall, which opened for business this month.
"People can come through and match a gift to a child," she said. "Some will take extras so that one child can pick out something for a sibling."
Shoppers leave with toys, stockings and baskets. One church family filled 200 red stockings with candy, coloring books, crayons, stickers, small toys and stuffed animals, following Ziegler's request "to put as much stuff in each as they could," she said.
After all the shopping, enough items remain for a church mission in Appalachia. Several parishioners planned to take the last few truckloads of toys there last week, and Ziegler will start thinking about next year.
With less than two weeks left of this year's holiday shopping season, she has yet to do any Christmas shopping of her own. But she's not concerned.
"This is my Christmas," said Ziegler. "Others do fancy parties and buy expensive gifts. I never thought about this being a ministry, until our pastor called it that."
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