Each December for more than 40 years, Mt. Hebron High School turns into a hybrid of Santa's workshop and Henry Ford's assembly line as students collect and organize thousands of donations, and cars turn into makeshift sleighs as those donations are delivered to families in need.
That was the scene early Friday, Dec. 20, at the Ellicott City school, as 170 students sorted 13,000 canned goods, $14,000 worth of fresh groceries and sundries and $7,000 worth of Christmas presents for 150 Howard County families.
"This is my biggest point of pride at Hebron," Principal Scott Ruehl said of the holiday tradition. "This involves every class in the building, every student. Everyone comes together to do this."
Students began work on the annual drive in November, collecting money and canned goods from family members and going door-to-door throughout their neighborhoods. Student Government Association adviser Angela Sugg said the students turn the collection into a friendly competition, seeing who can raise the most.
While the six-week collection drive is underway, the SGA partners with the Church of the Resurrection, in Ellicott City, which provides a list of families in need. Students reach out to families and pass a list along to the National Honor Society, which raised money to purchase presents for nearly 300 young children.
And as the weeks pass, the piles of collected goods grow.
"This has kind of taken on a life of its own," Sugg said, standing in the cafeteria filled with thousands of food items, watching as students maneuver grocery carts filled with peanut butter to bagging stations, or carry armloads of eggs to be gently nestled into bags.
SGA President Mary Atta-Dakwa woke up at 5 a.m. Friday and was at the Giant on Route 40 by 5:30 a.m. Students and staff members already were loading pick-up trucks with the fresh food — like the 150 gallons of milk — purchased by special order with money raised during the drive.
"It's overwhelming and it's humbling," said Atta-Dakwa, a senior. "This is a big part of what makes Hebron what it is. We're just a close community. This is one of those places where, if you need help, you'll get it. When we need to do something, we come together and do it enthusiastically. We love our school and we love our community."
Often, people don't realize that there are people in need in affluent Howard County, Atta-Dakwa said. Ruehl agreed.
"This raises awareness that there are people who are struggling in the county," he said. "And it helps kids realize they can make a difference in the community."
Atta-Dakwa said she's gotten emotional in the past after dropping off donations to the families. Once, she remembered, a woman cried.
"It was so emotional, she was so happy," Atta-Dakwa said. "Feeling like, yeah, I really helped, it's a great feeling. It's such a humbling experience."
Junior Jeff O'Neal said once, delivering donations to a woman living in a retro-fitted garage in Ellicott City, he wished he could do more.
"She was struggling, and it felt good to help, but I always wish I could do more," he said. "There's limitations on how much we can do because we're a school and there's only so many hours we can work. But I think we're doing a great job nonetheless."
When Ruehl, a 1987 Mt. Hebron graduate, was a student at the school, the drive helped approximately 30 families.
Now, it's a massive event the community rallies around and looks forward to every year. Ruehl said if weather prevents students from collecting goods on the weekend, neighbors often drop off donations at the school.
When Snowmaggedon closed school in 2009 and students weren't able to make the donation deliveries themselves, Ruehl said parents and staff took over.
Last week's delivery day also was a mini-reunion for the 60 alumni who came back to help — another example of the importance the drive holds in the hearts of the school community, Ruehl said.
"You know, you never really leave Hebron," he said. "That says so much, that even after you graduate, you want to be here to help, to be a part of that sense of community."