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Wrap battles: Howard County volunteers wrestle gifts into submission — and raise funds for their causes

Jamie Politzer can’t recall what the present was, exactly, that she was asked to wrap a few years ago.

But the president of Howard County General Hospital’s volunteer auxiliary easily remembers its shape: two octagons linked by a single rectangle.

A table of some sort? A “Star Wars” vehicle model? Two stop signs with a box in the middle?

No matter. Politzer wrestled the object into submission with the wisdom that “creating evenly spaced pleats goes a long way in wrapping odd-shaped gifts.”

Such are the challenges for the armies of volunteers that wrap presents as fundraisers over the holiday season. Over coming weeks, you’ll likely encounter teams from the hospital at the Mall in Columbia and representatives from the Boy Scouts, Bright Minds Foundation, S.A.F.E. Food Pantry and others at the Barnes & Noble in Ellicott City.

“We’ll wrap anything!” says Politzer, who’s also inpatient rehabilitation clinic program manager at the hospital. Volunteers representing Howard County General, with backup from community groups, clubs and businesses, will man a wrapping station from Dec. 9-24 at the mall, as they have for almost the past 20 years. And the gifts don't even have to be mall purchases.

Now that gift bags have been added to the arsenal of boxes, paper, tissue, ribbons and bows, some previous wrapping challenges could easily be conquered.

Sometime past, wrappers were presented with an objet d’art with multiple points extending outward. It fit no box, and try as they might with tissue and layers of gift wrap, they could not keep those projections from poking right through. It is the only gift wrap failure in remembrance. Yet the client appreciated their efforts; he left a generous contribution and even wanted to add a tip for the wrappers.

Howard County General’s board annually chooses a different recipient — this year it’s the Lundy Family Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit.

Over the past five years holiday gift-wrapping has brought in almost $40,000 for various hospital causes and departments, Politzer reports. During the 2016 holidays, just over 2,000 gift were wrapped at $2-$10 a pop depending on size -- boxes additional.

Last year and this, opening day headliner and family go-to guy for perfect presents is hospital President Steven Snelgrove, a detail-oriented precision wrapper who looks forward to the camaraderie of the event.

“I enjoy getting out there and being part of the team. We are a family of gift wrappers,” he says. “It’s a good way to get us ready for the holidays.”

Over at the Barnes & Noble bookstore, you never know whose eager hands await your gifts: Scout troops, clubs and nonprofits such as Animal Advocates of Howard County, Bright Minds Foundation, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and S.A.F.E. Food Pantry are among community volunteers.

Most of the presents — books — will be simple rectangles. But more challenging objects such as unboxed toys, odd-shaped desktop accessories or gift items from the café turn up as well.

Not every giver is looking for perfection. Last year, “we had a gentleman who asked that his package for an office holiday party be really ugly – the way he’d wrap it himself,” says S.A.F.E. Food Pantry founder and board President Tiffany Holtzman. “We patched together different paper, some inside out and crooked” – exactly what he wanted.

Some folks do all their shopping (and wrapping) in one fell swoop. Karen Brewer, organizer of Animal Advocates’ wrapping effort, remembers one bag-laden customer pulling out more and more items, sorting them in orderly stacks in front of each volunteer. She followed up with both a generous check and an invitation for wrappers to stop by her establishment for a glass of wine.

Another young man brought over a number of volumes and wandered off to do some more shopping while his wrapping was being done. The additional gifts he bought were cups of hot chocolate and biscuits for wrappers’ sustenance, recalls Animal Advocates member Cindy Saver.

There is no fee, only donations, for this service. Some shoppers take this a little too much to heart. Beverley Francis-Gibson, executive director of NAMI Howard County, cites a woman who had more than 40 gifts, not all rectangular. Wrappers working on the floor as well as the table were rewarded with $1 in the group’s donation jar.

But things balance out, Francis-Gibson says; some people come over and donate without having anything wrapped at all. And it’s another opportunity for folks to become familiar with the causes.

“We’ve had people join on the spot,” she adds. The effort “makes the holiday season what it should be.”

Interactions can be gratifying to the wrappers. To Sandra Price, board member of NAMI and veteran volunteer, “It’s really important for me to give back and get the word out,” says Sandra Price, board member of NAMI and veteran volunteer. “People come up to share their stories and talk about how important NAMI is to them.”

Says Cindy Saver: “I’ve worked the Christmas Eve shift for several years, and it’s amazing to me how pleasant people are even when they have more gifts to purchase and are down to the wire.”

Mall in Columbia

Gift-wrapping runs Dec. 9 through Christmas Eve at a new location, on the second level between J.C. Penney and Lord & Taylor. Hours are noon-6 p.m. Dec. 9-13; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Dec. 14-23; noon-6 p.m. Dec. 24.

Barnes & Noble

Located in Long Gate Shopping Center on Montgomery Road in Ellicott City. Various local nonprofits are scheduled to wrap there; some as follows:

Animal Advocates of Howard County: 3-10 p.m. Dec. 15; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Dec. 23; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Dec. 24

Bright Minds Foundation: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Dec. 16

NAMI Howard County: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Dec. 22

S.A.F.E. Food Pantry: noon-6 p.m. Dec. 17; 3-9 p.m. Dec. 22

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