On a recent morning, Highland Elementary students swarmed a table in the hallway just before classes got under way.
Youngsters eagerly reached out toward the stacks of holiday gift tags - tags with the true meaning of Christmas attached.
"Everyone at Highland loves this project," said fifth grade student Tori Schafer, who has participated in the holiday service project for six years.
Here's how the annual project works: Students pick up gift tags in the school lobby in late November or early December. Because of the response, a student can only obtain one gift tag; about 140 tags were distributed to students in recent days.
Gift tags provide information about the children who will be the recipients of the outreach effort. Tags include a "wish list" or gift suggestions. Sometimes, the lists show that parents influence what goes on the list.
"It's kind of humbling to see a wish list where someone is asking for new sheets for a child's bed," said Mary Birsen. She and Penny Jenkins are co-chairmen of the Highland holiday service project. Other practical gifts, such as mittens or diapers, are included on some lists.
With the information on the wish lists in hand, students set out to shop, spending no more than $25 on each gift. Then, the wrapped gifts, with the tags secured to the packages, are returned to the school. And then, the gifts are delivered to the Sylvania Area Family Services for distribution to families who have signed up for assistance during the holiday season.
"I think it is really cool that we get to help," said Tori, the fifth grade student. She added that through the Highland students' efforts, children "who aren't as fortunate receive gifts."
Others in the Sylvania district are donating gifts to needy children. For instance, a third grade class that performs "random acts of kindness" in the school decided to extend its mission during the holiday season. Last Saturday, the students and their teacher, Linda Dryer, went shopping - not for themselves, but for others. Using money raised through donations, they purchased gifts for 10 children who are being served through Sylvania Area Family Services.
Because of the generosity of others, "these families do have a nice Christmas," said Jennifer Knicely, social services director for the agency, which has been providing assistance for 38 years to city and township residents.
Many recipients cry when they receive the gifts, she said.
Sometimes, children are excited to see rather ordinary gifts such as toothbrushes and toothpaste, she said. One holiday, she recalled, a little girl, whose family was leaving the agency with food and gifts, asked her mom, "Why are these people being so nice to us?"
Local firefighters give their time to load the donated food, including hams and turkeys. Many in the community give food and gifts for those in need, Mrs. Knicely said.
One local church "adopts" 75 families at Thanksgiving and 50 at Christmas. "We ask donors to provide an adopted family with enough food to prepare a holiday meal, but a lot of the donors will provide food that can almost stock a pantry for a month," she said. "All of the donors are very generous."
Although Sylvania is considered to be upscale, many families are in need. "We have families applying daily" for aid, said Mrs. Knicely, who anticipates that the agency will provide food and gifts to 200 families in the district during the holidays.
Sylvania students, she said, provide much needed, much appreciated support.
"The kids always amaze me each year," Mrs. Knicely said. "You can tell the way they wrap things that they are really thinking about this family."
Sometimes, students prefer shopping for infants or tots; sometimes, they want to buy gifts for teens. Boys like to buy for boys. And so on.
Tori said she didn't have a preference. "It didn't matter to me. What matters is to make sure that someone has a smile at Christmas."