It began four years ago as an information and referral service for Howard County residents. Since then, Christ Church Link has grown into something more, helping needy families at Christmas and helping to ensure that elementary and middle school pupils are well-equipped for the start of school.
Christ Church Link, based at Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia's Oakland Mills village, was created in 1996 under the leadership of the Rev. James M. Shields and the Rev. Barbara J. Seras. Two years later it expanded, offering clothing, food and toys to families at Christmas.
Last year it grew again, adding a program that distributes backpacks containing $30 to $50 worth of school supplies to three county schools. More than 170 backpacks have been given out.
In May, the Christmas and school programs acquired a name -- The Giving Tree, taken from the title of a book by Shel Silverstein.
"I'm never disappointed," said Rosemarie Thompson of Ellicott City, whose children were helped by The Giving Tree. "I always get help when I need it."
The community outreach program is run by several county Baptist and Episcopal churches.
Since its inception, the program has provided food and other necessities to hundreds of families each year.
The ministry, which puts people in touch with counselors, shelters and other county resources, reaches out to people of all faiths.
"My personal joy comes from seeing the kids' faces light up when they receive their backpacks," said Mike Clark, coordinator of Christ Church Link.
Funded by Christ Episcopal Church and the Columbia Foundation, and staffed by more than 20 volunteers, the program receives about 1,000 calls per year.
Some callers have been threatened with eviction or loss of utilities.
Others need immigration or child care assistance.
"This is one of the ways that we discover the need of these students ... through those who call the hot line," Clark said.
The names of selected callers are placed on a paper tree at Christ Episcopal Church.
Congregation members choose a tag and "adopt" a family, either at Christmas or before the start of school, said Dione Mahoney, a Christ Church Link volunteer.
Help comes from other sources, too.
"These supplies are not purchased by the congregation alone," Mahoney said.
"There are area businesses, other church groups and civic groups involved in this giving project, as well."
Buying at least $25 worth of supplies for each child at the start of the school year can be difficult for someone on a fixed income, Mahoney said.
"This is an effort to support every child as they pursue their studies," Mahoney said.
Christ Church Link adopted three schools this school year -- Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Murray Hill Middle School in North Laurel and Deep Run Elementary School in Elkridge -- and distributed backpacks to needy children there.
"It's good to fill the gap when the need exists," Clark said. "The truth is, we all have to take ownership in helping our kids."
Mahoney sees the school supplies program as one that is ripe for expansion.
"Down the road, we would like businesses, civic groups and churches to adopt schools with needy kids," she said. "If these adoptions take place, we could begin to fill an ongoing need in the county."
To contact Christ Church Link, call 410-309-9695.
Sun editorial assistant Karen Keys contributed to this article.