HCC support staff helps local families in need

Giving Tree helps school reach out to surrounding community

December 16, 2010|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

They call it the Giving Tree, a forest green, shrub-high centerpiece atop a desk at Howard Community College's Welcome and Information Center. For nearly 10 years, the tree has symbolized the Columbia school's efforts to reach out to the surrounding community during the holiday season.

The tree comes courtesy of HCC's support staff — everyone from security personnel to the plant operation crew to office staff. Each year, they place it on display at the Welcome Center at the Rouse Company Foundation Student Services Hall, one of the most-visited buildings on campus.

Many support staff members know area families in need, and they ask those families to write a holiday "wish list" for their children younger than 18. Then they place those requests on tags that they attach to the tree.

HCC students, faculty, staff and even visitors to the campus are invited to take a tag off the tree, buy the gift and give it to a support staff member, who then notifies the respective families to come and pick up their gifts.

"The project is very gratifying, knowing that there are people out there, whatever the world has dealt them with their life situations, that we can make a difference for them during the holidays," said Jennifer LePore, who works at the school's continuing education department.

Kathleen Hetherington, president of Howard Community College, called the tree "an important holiday tradition."

"Staff and faculty have deep roots in Howard County and feel strongly about giving back to those in need. This commitment is what makes our college community so special," she said.

Some families whose children have received gifts are HCC students. Families that cannot come to pick up gifts have them delivered. Giving Tree members said that the tree will be up until Tuesday.

"Most organizations or different offices want to adopt a family to help for the Christmas season, and it kind of grew from there," said Lorretta Rockwell, who works in the school's continuing education department. "We put the word out for the staff members that it could be any people that they knew in the community [that needed help] whether it be a student, or someone in their neighborhood."

HCC officials say that some school departments buy gifts for a family instead of buying office gifts for themselves. For the past two years, the school has collected gifts such as dolls, DVDs and pajamas for a dozen families. Families also receive grocery and restaurant gift cards as well as hats, gloves and books for each child.

Judy Darling, who heads the executive support group in charge of the Giving Tree, said that the group displays the Giving Tree the week before Thanksgiving so that everyone seeking to buy gifts for families will have a tag in hand on Black Friday, when many stores offer sales on items.

"All of a sudden, everybody just calls us," said Darling, who works at the Welcome Center. "They say, 'I know someone who just lost their job.' Or they say, 'Someone is deathly ill and they lost their job because of the illness.' Since we're a community college, we're more community-based.

"We might have somebody who is just checking out the college and see the Giving Tree, and they might take a tag," Darling added. "We're trying to make sure the children have a good holiday. We named it the Giving Tree [because] there are so many different nationalities on this campus, and so many different beliefs that we don't distinguish. All we see is someone in need that we would like to help."

Support staff speak of families who burst into tears when they come to pick up their gifts and see how much someone has given, and of children whose smiles fill the room when they receive their presents.

"I've delivered to some of the families," said Rockwell, "and you can see, when they have only the Christmas tree and maybe one or two gifts, when we bring them to those children you can see it on their faces. We want to let them know, 'You're part of our community, and we want to help out.' "

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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