Kimberly Stuchul had recently moved to Hampden from Pittsburgh, when she took her son, Austin, 6, to the Roosevelt Park Recreation Council's annual free Christmas Party last December at the Roosevelt Recreation Center.
Stuchul, a Johns Hopkins University research fellow, was impressed by the party for 200 children and their families, many of which are low-income. The children joined a sing-along in the gymnasium and got free Christmas gifts (a toy truck for Austin), as well as cookies and drinks and a photo, printed and framed by a Kiwanis Club volunteer while they waited, of them posing with Santa Claus.
But Stuchul was even more taken with the recreation council and rec center staff.
"It was a rough move for us," she said. "We didn't know anybody down here. They really reached out to us."
The next month, Stuchul joined the council.
"After seeing how much they cared about the children of Hampden, I decided I wanted to be of part of that," she said.
Stuchul is now corresponding secretary and a volunteer fundraiser for the council, sending out "Dear Friend" letters to seek donations of money or low-cost, gender-neutral toys and wrapping paper for the party Dec. 22 at the center, Falls Road and West 36th Street. No time for the party has been announced yet.
Stuchul is also publicizing a Christmas Bazaar on Dec. 8 at the center, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., as a pre-party fundraiser.
On Wednesday, Stuchul went before the Hampden Village Merchants Association, requesting contributions from the association and individual merchants, as well as volunteers to work at the party. The association voted to give her $300 and merchants at the meeting also passed around a signup sheet on her behalf that raised several hundred dollars more in individual pledges.
The holiday season is when community and business leaders spring into action to donate to the cause of good holiday cheer in Hampden, where many families are struggling. Joshua Fissel, director of the Baltimore City-owned Roosevelt Recreation Center, said some children would not have Christmas gifts if not for efforts like the center's party, a longtime tradition that costs as much as $2,000 a year.
The party is also a magnet for neighborhood youths and teens, who volunteer at the party. Some even dress up as elves, Fissel said.
Many of those teens hang out at the center because their home lives are "not ideal," Stuchul said.
The merchants' association and groups like the Hampden Community Council help fund many holiday events. The merchants association has already given $1,000 this year to Tom Kerr, organizer of the 40th annual Hampden Mayor's Christmas Parade on Dec. 2, as well as $300 to have a float in the parade and $1,500 to pay the parade's Santa.
"We pay as much for Christmas (events) as we pay for our (merchants association) brochures," said Elissa Strati, treasurer of the association and owner of Avenue Antiques. "It's a significant portion of our annual budget."
Merchants also help on their own. Strati, for one, is accepting donations of toys for the Hampden Family Center's upcoming Christmas Party on Dec. 8, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and is seeking new, low-cost toys for ages newborn to 12.
"My staff wanted to do this," Strati said. The store's window space will showcase the donations and will be decorated for the holidays, she said.
Also helping is Sandy's Bargain Center, on The Avenue, which each year sponsors families in the neighborhood that need help due to job loss or illness, and seeks donations of cash, gift cards and toys at the store, 1029 W. 36th St.
"With help from my friends and customers, we are able to help two families this year give their kids a Christmas that they would otherwise not have," owner Sandy Piper says on her Facebook page. "I am asking for your assistance again this year. The people of Hampden, my customers and friends can always be counted on to come through for those in need."
The money and donations for such events is important to the recipients. Kerr, for example, told the association Wednesday, Nov. 14 that costs of helium for the parade's giant balloons has tripled in recent years. Kerr said he is organizing a fundraiser Nov. 29, 6-9 p.m., at Hon Bar, on The Avenue.
The Hampden Family Center's free annual Christmas party costs about $1,500 a year and last year drew 300 children and family members, many of them unable to afford much in the way of gifts.
Children must pre-register and each gets a free gift, plus lunch. Calvert School, T. Rowe Price and nurses at Union Memorial Hospital collect toys for the party, while the Boys' Latin School hockey team serves lunch and a youth group from St. David's Episcopal Church in Roland Park helps the children make ornaments and other crafts.
"For a lot of these kids, this is their Christmas celebration," said Lisa Ghinger, executive director of the center.