Hampden Family Center plays Santa to children who need help at holidays

Blayr Callaway, 19, who is raising her 8-year-old niece as well as her 2-year-old daughter, was in a familiar setting, at the Hampden Family Center's annual Holiday Party.

It's the center Callaway comes to throughout the year for social services ranging from food stamps to after-school tutoring for her niece, Selena Tingler.

"I use it for everything," said Callaway, of Hampden, as Selena posed for a free picture on Santa's lap.

On Saturday, she was using it "for the kids," because the center was offering a free lunch, visits with Santa and the Oriole Bird and a free gift for each of the 160 children and their families who attended the party at the center at 1104 W. 36th St.

Also glad for the center was Marie Hutchason, whose granddaughter, Archiana, 8, comes to the center after school at Hampden Elementary.

"I don't know what we would do without it," said Hutchason, of Hampden.

The party is also a boost to the community's spirit.

"That's why we do it," said Lisa Ghinger, executive director of the center.

About four years ago, when times were tough for the center, there was talk of scrapping the holiday party. But Alice Smith, past president of the board, said she wouldn't hear of it.

"I wasn't about to cancel it," said Smith, who is still on the board. "It's a tradition."

Volunteers like Smith, past president of the Junior League of Baltimore, are essential to putting on the party. Smith during the party helped children make gingerbread houses, while a contingent from a youth camp at St. David's Episcopal Church in Roland Park also served as volunteers.

And the Boys' Latin School Lakers ice hockey team did everything from handing out presents to serving lunch at the party.

"It's fun," said ice hockey player Bradley Schwartz, of Reisterstown, "and we're big at BL at helping out the community. It's not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning."

Even with a heavy heart, Kevin Bighan, a bartender at Zissimo's in Hampden, volunteered to work at the party.

"I'm trying to do something to make me feel good," said the retired railroad worker, 52, who lost his wife to liver cancer recently. "This is my Christmas present to myself."

Other sponsors of the party included the Baltimore Community Foundation, Calvert School, the Johns Hopkins Choral Society, Falkenhan's Hardware, the Baltimore Orioles, which donated the Oriole Bird's services, the nurses at Union Memorial Hospital, T. Rowe Price, Ravens Roost, The Food Market, The Wine Source and Utz Potato Chips.

Merchants, residents and other sponsors donated the gifts. Santa donated his time.

Leaving the party first were the first on line, Caitlynn Carter, 10, and her mother, Lisa. Caitlynn opened her free, wrapped gift on the street, sight unseen, and gasped when she saw what it was — a "Walking Snuggimal."

"It's a dog and it comes with its own little leash," Caitlynn said.

"She loves animals," Lisa Carter said. "It's a good present for her."

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