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UMB and Foundry Church have come up with a plan to help neighborhood residents buy new presidents and gifts at deeply discounted prices.

Secret message for Aiden Waters, age 7 — Aiden, you are about to have a VERY good Christmas.

Your mother (Mykel Townes), your mom’s cousin (Kenya Sykes) and your grandma (Cassandra Fair) spent much of Saturday snapping up bargains for you and your cousins at a holiday toy store for local residents run by the University of Maryland, Baltimore and Foundry Church.

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For six years, the Christmas Store has operated out of the UMB Community Engagement Center in West Baltimore during the first two Saturdays in December.

Everything in the store is new, in its original packaging and sold at steeply discounted prices to local residents. Several of 2019′s most in-demand toys, from the PAW Patrol stuffed animals to the L.O.L. Surprise! balls to the fashion dolls from the Disney movie “Frozen," are going for between $1 and $5. The Maryland Book Bank is also giving away one book per child, for free.

That makes it easier for shoppers on fixed incomes to buy holiday gifts without having to cut corners on groceries or turn down the thermostat.

Fair, a retired correctional officer, depends on the Christmas Store to check items off her shopping list for her 13 grandchildren and her 7-month-old great-grandchild.

“This store really helps a lot,” she said, as a cashier rang up her purchases, “especially when you have a family as large as mine.”

Her grand total for 10 gifts? Fifty-two dollars.

The Christmas Store expects to put about 1,200 toys in the hands of 200 neighborhood families this year, according to Lindsay Ferguson, Foundry Church’s director of operations.

When the Community Engagement Center was being built (it opened in 2015) representatives met with Fair and other neighborhood leaders and asked what programming would be most useful. Their responses resulted in the Community Center providing services from a legal clinic to fitness classes to workshops that develop employment skills.

But the organizers also kept hearing about a problem they hadn’t expected.

“One thing that kept coming up was that Christmas was a time of stress,” Ferguson said. “People wanted to provide for their loved ones. But the holidays are expensive for everyone.”

Ferguson and her fellow organizer at the university, Camille Givens-Patterson, could have simply given toys to local residents. But the organizers thought that it was important that gifts to the children come directly from family members instead of anonymous donors.

“Once parents ask for help, a lot of times they get shoved aside and the donors kind of take over," she said. “We wanted the parents to be the heroes of Christmas.”

The solution, they decided, was to temporarily transform the Community Engagement Center into a 3,500-square-foot traditional toy store. Instead of giving the toys away, they would sell them — but at rock-bottom prices.

Donors stock the store by purchasing toys from the online gift registries that Ferguson’s team established at Target and Amazon.com. The retailers ship the gifts for free. Volunteers unpack the merchandise, price it and display it on shelves.

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Once the store is open, other volunteers act as personal shoppers who make recommendations to customers, tote their purchases to the cash register and provide free gift wrapping.

“I should get one of these,” Townes said, lingering happily over a selection of light boxes, junior science labs and other educational toys. “Aiden really likes to work with his hands."

Though many items cost less than $5, some sell for more. Scooters were fetching $15, while a donated bicycle had a $40 price tag.

“Everything is priced at between a quarter and half of what you’d pay retail,” Ferguson said, adding that all proceeds collected from the Christmas store are funneled back into West Baltimore in the form of donations to local youth groups.

“Our shoppers aren’t just the heroes of Christmas,” she said. “They are the heroes of their neighborhoods.”

And just like Black Friday, bargain-hunters are willing to invest lots of — not sweat equity, perhaps, but shiver equity — to bag the best deals.

Fair, Townes and Sykes began camping outside the store at 5:30 am Saturday, nearly eight hours before the 1 p.m. opening time. The temperature outside was 47 degrees.

“We put on down coats and scarves and hats and gloves,” Sykes said. “We brought chairs and hot chocolate, and we kept running in and out of the car to stay warm.

“It was worth it.”

The Christmas store will reopen from 1 pm to 4 pm Saturday, Dec. 14, at the UMB Community Engagement Center, 870 W. Baltimore St. Donations are still being accepted. Online orders should be placed by Tuesday through the Target and Amazon registries.

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