Wrapping up the season

Gift service at malls benefits cancer research

December 23, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Pat Schiavone knew the drill as he approached the gift wrapping table at Harford Mall.

He removed the gifts from the shopping bag, picked out boxes and paid the fee. But he told the wrappers to choose the paper they liked best.

"They know how to make the packages look nice," said Schiavone, 63. "No one would want to unwrap something I wrapped. I wrap gifts like a 3-year-old. When it's done, tape is all over the place."

Schiavone left to shop for more presents to bring back to the table, a fundraising project staffed by volunteers for the Chesapeake Cancer Alliance, which raises money to support the families of cancer patients.

Another local nonprofit, AMC Harford County Chapter, which raises money for cancer research, has set up a table at White Marsh Mall. The groups typically raise about $15,000 each during the holiday season, and the volunteers who work the tables get a sneak peak at hundreds of presents that will be opened Christmas morning.

The fee ranges from $2 for the smallest box to $15 for a large box for items. For some customers, it's more about making a donation than getting a present wrapped.

"One lady had us wrap a gift for her that cost $1.50 and she gave us a $100 bill and told us to keep the change," said Pat Carpenter, 56, of Havre de Grace, who was working at Harford Mall recently. "We get tips galore."

Men account for more than 75 percent of the business, Mozelle Brown, president of AMC Harford County, said as she wrapped presents one afternoon at White Marsh. And they usually instruct the wrappers to choose the style of paper.

"They tell us that their wives know they didn't wrap it anyway, so we may as well use what we like," Brown said.

Some classic maneuvers - like wrapping a small item in a big box - are alive and well in 2007, Brown said.

"They tell us that they don't want it to be obvious that they bought the diamond ring their wife wanted," the Churchville resident said.

Carol Powell has the most fun when the men bring gifts from Victoria's Secret.

"I hold it up and tell them how beautiful it is," she said. "And their chests bulge out, and the other men standing in line are all envious."

Student volunteers help staff the tables. Brown said she lets the students practice on her gifts.

"My presents are for grandchildren, so it doesn't matter how they look," she said. "The high school students tend to be hesitant to jump in there and be willing to make a mistake. But you learn by doing."

On a recent afternoon, Brown taught 14-year-old Laura Schmidt how to wrap gifts. The freshman at Catholic High School chose a shimmery piece of red wrapping paper covered with blue and green Christmas tree bulbs.

"It's hard getting the presents just right," the teenager said. "But I've gotten better since I started."

Later, several Bel Air High students joined Brown. Mindy Gross, a senior, said she and her friends like to help because they get credit toward community service requirements for school and get to spend the day in the mall.

Although her grandmother taught her to wrap presents and make fancy bows, Mindy, 17, was a little out of practice.

"I think it's fun to be here at Christmastime and interact with all the people," the Bel Air resident said. "I love being in the mall. And wrapping presents here will get me back into practice. I haven't even started wrapping my own presents."

There is always a wrapping mishap or two, Powell said. She recalled the time when they accidentally wrapped the coat of a woman who had left several presents to be wrapped.

"The lady paid us for it anyway, and she laughed," Powell said. "It just made her day. She had asked the girl to hold the coat, and the girl left, and we didn't know she didn't want it wrapped."

Sometimes the shape of a gift can present a challenge.

"People bring up gift baskets and strange-shaped items that force us to improvise" she said. "But people don't care if it's perfect or not. They come to use because it's for a good cause, and they want to help out."

Christmas Eve is the busiest day for both groups. Customers, mostly men making last-minute purchases, line up to get their packages wrapped, Powell said.

"They bring coats and robes, and I'm worn out by the time we finish," she said. "We run out of boxes and bows, and it is a very long day. We give up our time at home but it's so rewarding, we keep doing it."

The gift-wrapping tables at Harford Mall and White Marsh Mall are open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. tomorrow.

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