Maria, a Carroll County mother of four, is writing a letter to Santa Claus.
But this letter isn't asking for anything. It's thanking the anonymous family that adopted hers and gave her a Christmas -- tree and all.
Her children know only that the presents are from Santa. Maria, who requested anonymity for privacy reasons, doesn't know the name of her benefactors, either. But Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc. has agreed to forward a thank-you letter.
The two families became connected through Neighbors in Need, the annual holiday charity that pulls together several agencies, churches, community groups and businesses as a sort of clearinghouse to make sure all families who ask for help can get it.
Maria's was one of 666 families adopted by other families or groups in Carroll County. Another 594 families got presents and food through donations made to Neighbors in Need, said Sylvia Canon, executive director of Human Services, which coordinates the program.
"They gave me a tree, decorations, cookies -- everything," Maria said of her adopters. "I had nothing. I left a bad situation in Baltimore." Maria came to Carroll County in 1993 and stayed with relatives but eventually had to go to a shelter operated by Human Services before she found a home. During her stay at the shelter, she learned about Neighbors in Need and applied for help at Thanksgiving and Christmas. She is in school, not working and short on money.
Her children got Christmas presents they wanted, the current dolls and toys that most children request. Her oldest son got a Walkman, she said.
Maria got some clothing for herself and the children, and certificates to take to a local grocery store to get food. Maria said she was also moved by an ornament the family gave her. The benefactors enclosed a note saying they had one just like it, and would put it on their tree each year to remember that they had helped someone, in memory of a loved one who had died recently.
They hoped that Maria would do the same, they wrote.
She says she will.
The 1,260 families who got help from Neighbors in Need last year represent a 17 percent increase over the 1,047 families that were helped in 1992, Ms. Canon said. The families were made up of 3,668 people, more than half of whom were children, she said.
In some cases, families asked only for food -- senior citizens often did this -- or presents, Ms. Canon said. But most needed both.
The organizers tried a new method of distributing presents this year that worked well, Ms. Canon said. Families that were not adopted got vouchers they could trade for gifts set out on long tables at the former Greenfelt's at Cranberry Mall.
That reduced the need for volunteers to pack boxes with gifts matching the requests by families on paper, and to give families some choices.
"People loved it," Ms. Canon said.
As the distribution day -- Dec. 17 -- approached, Ms. Canon and others became nervous about having enough presents to give out, especially enough for adults.
But the community rose to the occasion, she said. That morning, a truck from Londontowne Corp. in Eldersburg arrived full of adult clothing -- sweaters, vests, jackets, coats and shirts. In the afternoon, the truck came back with more.
"That really did it for us," Ms. Canon said. "That really put us over the top."