A youth group from the Hunt's Memorial United Methodist Church in Riderwood delivered an early batch of Christmas cheer to a Baltimore City school on Dec. 21.
More than 300 wrapped shoe boxes full of Christmas gifts were assembled and given to the students at Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary School in West Baltimore, a school with which the West Towson church has developed a unique partnership.
"There's a saying at our church: 'Hunt's always comes through,' " PJ Boyle said. "This is a prime example of the giving spirit of Hunt's."
Boyle and his 14-year-old daughter, Caroline, whom many volunteers credited as the driving force behind the project, worked tirelessly on the project for the last several months with the church's Mid-High youth group, which consists of 10 middle-school-age members.
Wednesday was no different. Around noon, Boyle and Caroline were organizing parents and their children at the family's West Towson home and coordinating the gifts' delivery downtown.
The children, who wore elf hats for the occasion, loaded the gifts into cars that were driven by their reindeer antler-wearing parents.
At the elementary school, the gifts were laid out all across the school's gym and ultimately given to each student by the children of Hunt's Memorial at a schoolwide assembly.
The students' excitement was palpable, and though they weren't allowed to open the gifts in the gym, their glee wasn't lost on the volunteers.
"That's why we do it," Caroline said. "These kids are adorable, and seeing how happy they are, it's so worth it."
Before they shifted their focus locally, the Mid-High group participated in Operation Christmas Child, which sends gifts all over the world.
But many participants said that the most satisfying part of their local program is being able to experience the children's joy first-hand.
"It's much better," said John Whiteford, 14. "I used to not really care much when we did that, but now when you can see the kids react, it makes a difference."
Blake Leonard, 14, gave out gifts with his mother, Leigh, and his 12-year-old brother, Ross. Blake said that the experience was made better by the fact that it was so close to home.
Wednesday marked the third year that the Mid-High youth group donated Christmas gifts locally.
In 2009, they donated around 50 shoe boxes to a local Boys and Girls Club, but upon learning of the need at Charles Carroll Barrister, they decided to focus their attentions there.
Last Christmas, the group put together 150 gift boxes, but because they didn't have enough for everyone, the teachers ultimately had to decide which students were neediest and distribute the gifts accordingly.
"That was tough, knowing that some kids wouldn't get anything," Caroline said.
So this year, she and the rest of the group set out to have a box for every child.
"The congregation has been great," she said. "We were able to do so much more this year."
Caroline and her parents began shopping around back-to-school time, but she was still assembling boxes as late as Tuesday night.
The end result was more than satisfying for all involved.
"It went great," she said as the event was winding down. "They were so happy."
Bridget Dean, principal of Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary School, said the event was "breathtaking," and praised the church volunteers for all they do for the school.
The Christmas project is one of many contributions that Hunt's Memorial makes to the inner-city school.
Volunteer Ellen Thompson said that several years ago, she was helping a friend who taught at the school to solicit corporate sponsors for the school, but the leading candidate pulled out and left the school with nothing.
At that point, she took matters into her own hands and found that everyone she asked was willing to help out. The church's partnership with the school only grew from there.
In the last five years, Hunt's Memorial has helped paint the entire school, helped to reestablish the school's library, held a coat drive for the students, and coordinated the donation of playground equipment from Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
Additionally, a group of volunteers goes to the school each week to read for the children.
"The kids love them," Dean said. "They give up their time freely and do a lot for us."