When a weary world rejoices, who deserves to celebrate more than those who battle despair all year long?
They feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, comfort the dying.
Their goodwill knows no season. And their devotion gives us hope even in times of turmoil.
During the holidays, we herald their efforts and glance into the lives of these earthly angels.
Say a fire devastates your home, forcing you and your husband to live in the garage for five months. Friends lend you a scrap of carpet and a small television, and you move into a motor home while carpenters rebuild. You wear the same outfit over and over. You eat more canned beans than you thought possible. You get mad and blame God.
The last thing most people would do is help others.
Then again, most people aren't like Ida Hudson.
Two months after a five-alarm blaze nearly razed the two-story bungalow in Dundalk she called home for 42 years, she was back at work as a Red Cross disaster action volunteer.
"I remembered clients who had no friends, no motor home, no garage. I had so much, and I felt out of control and angry. I thought, 'How must they feel?' " says Ms. Hudson, 60.
Now more than ever, she understands their grief. When they cry, she cries, too. But after the tears, she begins the long process of helping them rebuild their lives. It starts by assessing the damage and finding them a temporary home, clothes and food.
In the last four years, she has traveled to some of the nation's worst disasters -- including Hurricanes Andrew, Hugo and Iniki -- as well as local fires, tornadoes and floods.
She's learned to dress quickly in the middle of the night, to navigate streets others wouldn't travel in daylight, to see hope in the debris.
Testament to her experience came last fall when she got a call from the Red Cross asking her to aid victims of Hurricane Andrew. For four weeks, she worked 18-hour days in Florida, supervising 38 caseworkers -- including physicians and dentists -- from many states. Today she keeps in contact with many people she has met in her travels, including one survivor whose teen-age daughter died in the hurricane.
Ms. Hudson took an early retirement from her secretarial job at Dundalk Community College to devote herself to volunteering. Disaster relief work appealed to her because it offered immediate assistance after a tragedy.
"But I don't have any special strength," she says. "I'm just human being like everybody else."
Lynda Dee is running on anger.
You can hear it in her husky voice, see it in her tense features, feel it when she talks about her husband's death six years ago.
He died of AIDS, and since then, Ms. Dee has made a career out of helping others who are HIV-positive.
As president of AIDS Action Baltimore, she calls herself the mouthpiece for patients, fighting for things they're often too weak to ask for: money, research, housing, insurance.
She doesn't want others to go through what she did after her husband was diagnosed. "I felt like I was deserted. Nobody cared. Nobody helped. . . . It's awful to watch somebody die and not be able to do anything about it," says Ms. Dee, 40, who lives in Ednor Gardens.
Her husband's death wasn't the first tragedy in her life. In 1985, their six-week-old son, Grant, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
"I've had a lot of rock-bottoms in life," she says.
She's given up counting the number of funerals she's attended for AIDS victims. She can't bring herself to cross out their names or phone numbers in her address book, though. She's afraid of what she might see.
But Ms. Dee has given up believing that if she works harder, she can fix this. Now it's enough to provide services, educate others and win an occasional battle with the medical establishment.
She feels burned-out, but the cause is so much a part of her she can't imagine her life without it. It's made her impatient. She suffers from migraines. And she's not sure what happened to her sense of humor.
"Sometimes I feel like, 'Get a life.' Years ago, I used to be such a fun-loving person. I'm not now."
Ms. Dee divides her time between this and a career as a criminalawyer. She also belongs to numerous boards and advisory groups that look at AIDS research and treatment.
She has tested negatively for the disease and acknowledges that survivor's guilt also motivates her.
Every time she hears about another person dying of AIDS, it re-opens old wounds.
"You work and you work," she says, "so you won't think about your pain."
Nancy Kavanagh O'Neill
In the fight against hunger, Nancy Kavanagh O'Neill's best weapon is her camera.
For the last three years, she has captured the many faces of hunger around the state, shooting some 200 rolls of film for the Maryland Food Committee.
As a top volunteer, she is part of a growing trend among non-profits. With funding for public programs dwindling and human need increasing, these groups are relying more on the talents of people like Ms. O'Neill, who is a professional photographer.
The work allows to combine her creativity with her desire to benefit others.
"There is this feeling that you can help people see what really is going on. The answer isn't to just give a can of food to somebody. The answer is to, as a community, help each other through very difficult times. . . . I feel that I am part of that," says Ms. O'Neill, 43, who lives in Baltimore County with her husband and three daughters.
Growing up in East Baltimore, she watched neighbor help neighbor when times were tough. "In most communities, people don't have that anymore. Most neighbors don't even know each other," she says.
She decided to volunteer after seeing an ad for the food committee in a theater playbill. It read: "Give your time, give your money, give your talents."
"I thought, 'I don't have any money, I don't have any time, but I do have this one thing I could give,' " she says.
Giving has sometimes meant arriving in Western Maryland by sunrise to photograph farmers at work or shooting family after family eating meals at Baltimore soup kitchens. At times, the challenge has been delivering a picture that moves others while allowing subjects to maintain their dignity.
Her work also has changed her once-simplistic view about hunger.
"In the back of my head, I thought this was a hand-out program for people who are hungry," she says. "But it isn't anything like that. . . . These are people who could be your own children, your own parents, your own brothers and sisters."
Some people are recognized by one name alone: Madonna, Elvis, Cher.
Add to that list 72-year-old retiree John Middleton.
Around the George W. F. McMechen School in northwest Baltimore, he simply goes by his nickname: Grandpa.
A foster grandparent for 11 years, he visits the public school for the disabled every day of the week, bringing with him a knack for making newspaper hats, telling jokes and listening.
Although his day officially ends at noon, he often lingers until after the dismissal bell to help out with events. A former professional Boy Scout troop leader, Mr. Middleton is proud that he beefed up the Boy Scout program there and has taken some youngsters on their first overnight camping trip.
"His big heart gets him through," says Paula Cottrell, school principal. "He came to our school years ago and said, 'Here I am. Tell me where you need me. I'll do what I can for the children.' "
His motivation is deeply personal. He became a foster grandparent to give youngsters a better childhood than he had. Growing up in Charleston, S.C., during the Depression, he faced many problems. His parents divorced before he was 6, his mother died of pneumonia several years later, and he was raised by relatives.
"I lost all the people who were my support at a young age," he says.
He also had vision and hearing problems that have resulted in him wearing two hearing aids and reading with a magnifying glass.
Before coming to McMechen, he volunteered at the Charles Hickey School, helping to create an Explorers Club there.
"I looked at those boys and said, 'These kids could have been me.' Their problems mostly came from neglect, from being in a one-parent home," says Mr. Middleton, who is a grandfather himself and lives in East Baltimore.
While he knows he's helping some youngsters, he says they do a lot for him.
"They have helped me cope in my senior years better than I would have," he says. "They give me a sense of purpose."
Whether he's raking the yard of a sick neighbor or raising money for disaster victims, Brian Meshkin often thinks about his friend, Chris Kelly.
Three years ago, his red-haired classmate was killed while riding his bike in front of Brian's home. Brian and his father were the first to the accident, but Chris had been killed instantly in a collision with a motorist.
In the months after the tragedy, Brian and other students XTC struggled to deal with their grief. They began working on getting a mandatory bicycle helmet law passed in Howard County. Nearly a year after Chris' death, it went into effect.
"I felt obligated to do something," says Brian, who lives in Howard County. "I didn't want Chris' death to be in vain."
Since then, Brian has become a one-man fund-raising machine. Elected president of the student government at Glenelg High School this year, he has rallied students to many causes, including fighting prejudice, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence and cancer.
He got firsthand experience with discrimination during his freshman year. Part Iranian, he was the victim of taunts by upperclassman who wrote graffiti on his locker and cursed at him in the hall.
His goals have been to encourage activism among students and forge a stronger bond between the school and the community.
"Kids can make a difference. Sometimes there are barriers because of age discrimination. But there are many ways kids can be heard," he says.
During the first event of the school year, a fall dance, students realized it was going to be an unusual year. Brian donated some of the proceeds to Hurricane Andrew relief efforts.
Last month, after finding out that a neighbor who has cancer was unable to care for her home, he and 10 students spent several days clipping bushes, raking the yard and cleaning windows.
For the holidays, he's organized a dinner for the elderly in Howard County.
Brian's efforts have not gone unnoticed. This year he received a community service award from the United Way of Central Maryland and was named Maryland's young volunteer of the year by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Yet he frowns on being seen as too much of a do-gooder. "I don't consider myself an angel," he says. "I might not always do the right thing. I've been thrown out of my share of classes for being obnoxious."