By Keith Meisel, firstname.lastname@example.org
5:01 PM EST, December 17, 2012
The organizers of the 11th annual Home for the Holidays Party at the Banneker Community Center prefer sticking with the basics when it comes to holiday gifts.
Sports equipment such as basketballs and footballs and toys such as dolls and Hess holiday trucks were handed out by Santa Claus and his volunteer elves from Seton Keough High School to the community's younger residents during the Dec. 14 party.
The children and their families also enjoyed a free dinner featuring chicken wings, meatballs, macaroni and cheese, green beans, sliced apples, cake and cookies prepared by Lucille Radcliffe in the kitchen of the community center.
The basic approach Bonita McMorris, Nancy Stanton and Radcliffe have taken since they partnered to host the first holiday party in 2001 seems to be a successful one, as the number of people who attend the event in the Winters Lane community of Catonsville continues to grow.
"We always gave out emergency food," Stanton said of the event's origins. "We decided that since nobody was doing it around here, that we would have a party for the community."
McMorris said the women, who worked together for the Community Assistance Network and what was then Operation Headstart at the center, used their own money to buy action figures and dolls to give out as gifts, in addition to providing the food for the free dinner
"That first year, we had about 200 people," said McMorris, a Catonsville native. "Now we're up to around 400."
According to a count based on the number of Styrofoam plates Stanton, Radcliffe and Bonita Jackson used to serve dinner, several hundred guests enjoyed the meal, holiday music and Santa's visit this year.
"Every year, it's more crowded. But the more, the merrier," said Jackson, who has also been involved with the event from its beginning.
McMorris said donations come from local businesses, community organizations and area representatives.
Students at Catonsville High School led a toy drive to support the event.
Michele Washington, who served as community supervisor for the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks at Banneker for several years, said she was "shocked" the first time she attended the party three years ago.
"I wasn't expecting it to be as large as it was," said Washington, who now supervises the community center for Arbutus-Lansdowne-Baltimore Highlands.
"To see all the toys, to see the community come together the way it did, with so many people giving food and toys, this is a great event," she said.
In addition to families with young children and several senior citizens in wheelchairs, Stanton said several homeless people also enjoyed the holiday hospitality.
All were welcome, she said.
"I was homeless at one time and Miss Nancy, she helped me a lot," said Catonsville resident James Gilmore, who now lives in area.
"The way things are going, this is a good thing, especially after what happened today. So many things going on, you never know," said Gilmore, referring to the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 first-graders and six teachers in a Connecticut elementary school.
"It's a good thing to be doing for the community, helping the kids out and the less fortunate," said Sir Bryant Randall, who said he helped set up the tables and chairs in the community center gymnasium.
Antonio Branham was also among those who helped set up. The motivation for his drive up from his home in Prince George's County to take part was simple, he said.
"To see the kids smile," he said.
Catonsville High School student Antoine Wright said he was attending the event for the first time.
He said he came at the request of his 5-year-old niece, Lanisha Durant. After they enjoyed dinner, Lanisha sat on his lap and the two waited to hear the call for girls age 5 to come up and receive their gifts from Santa.
Margaret Stokes, an aide for 1st District Councilman Tom Quirk, said she appreciated the event's focus on feeding families and providing gifts for the children.
"This is an awesome project the Winters Lane community hosts every year for the kids," she said. "It's all about the kids. Some of these kids, the only times they get something is for back to school and Christmas.
"It's uplifting because it shows people care," she said. "But it's sad because it's needed during these economic times."
Wanetta Morris and her extended family of 12, including eight under the age of 10, was among those who appreciated the food and gifts.
"I would be unable to afford gifts and things for the kids. This helps a lot," said the Catonsville resident.
Westview resident Aminah Dennis brought her seven children o Friday evening's event. Her six boys and one girl range in age from 3 to 14 and include two sets of twins.
"This definitely makes a difference," she said.
Dennis said she attended her first holiday party at the Banneker center last year.
"It was so exciting, it was almost like having two Christmases," she said of her 2011 experience. "There are so many children and every child walks away with a lot of gifts."
Liz Robinson was attending the event for the first time. The Catonsville resident came with her daughter and 18-month-old grand-daughter.
"This is really nice," she said.