PEPPERELL -- For the eighth year in a row, students at North Middlesex Regional High School will be playing the role of Santa's elves for hundreds of children who might not otherwise be able to receive Christmas presents.
The student service-learning group, a community-service organization made up of students at the school, is organizing its annual Giving Tree, which will provide presents to children in need in the local and surrounding communities.
Specific requests are written on tags and hung on the branches of evergreen trees in the halls of the high school. Throughout the following weeks, donations pour in in the form of packaged toys as well as cash to provide the requested gifts.
On Dec. 15, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the high school auditorium will transform into Santa's workshop for the annual wrapping day. Last year, 75 volunteers turned out to sort, wrap and tag hundreds upon hundreds of packages, while other volunteers went out to buy the items that weren't supplied through donation.
"There's wrapping paper everywhere, there's Christmas music playing -- it could be the North Pole," said Elisabeth Ryden, one of the program's five student coordinators.
The North Middlesex Regional High School Giving Tree program began nearly a decade ago with teacher Ray Kane and two of his students at the time. Kane and his students had noticed that several of the Christmas charities were being run through local churches; Kane thought it was time that someone else helped ease the burden by taking on some of that load.
"I thought, we have a great opportunity here with so many people together in one place. It doesn't just have to be the responsibility of the local churches," said Kane, who is now acting advisor for the school's service-learning group, which has since taken over the program.
Kane said the program takes a three-pronged approach by working with local organizations, groups in the surrounding communities and international organizations. This year, the service-learning group is working to help supply items for Jeremiah's Inn in Worcester, Our Father's House in Fitchburg, Ginny's Helping Hands in Leominster, and Heifer International. The program offers the option of signing up for fuel assistance tags and they also supply food baskets.
Kane also works with school employees, administrators, the Department of Children and Families and residents to learn of the needs of local families. Sometimes, he said, parents or grandparents contact him directly with a request for their children.
"There's a bit of a divide that comes with people who are not eligible totally for assistance and really could use it in this economy. We really try to pick up people in the gap," said Kane.
Kellan Morgan, another of the student coordinators, said it was gratifying being able to help so close to home.
"It feels good to know I'm helping people out that I might be seeing every day and helping people get involved at the same time," she said.
Everything is done anonymously. The tags on the trees list only the child's gender, age and a request.
"We really pride ourselves on the confidentially we maintain," said Kane.
Eight years ago, the program began with sponsoring 30 children. Last year, it hit 181 children. This year, said Kane, he anticipates providing to more than 280 children.
"We were contacted by a local foundation -- because our program is pretty successful -- that sponsors about 400 kids, and their corporate partner went bankrupt, so we took on 100 of their names," said Kane.
The service-learning group tries to provide not only for the needs but also the desires of the children, supplying each with between three and five gifts. Requests can range from iPods to socks and underwear.
"What we want people to get is just because a kid is in need doesn't mean that that kid is any different than kids that have everything. We try to give on certain levels -- one thing is something the kid wants, one thing is something the kid needs," said Kane. "We make sure that one or two gifts, those gifts are for a child to be a child."
Whatever is not supplied through donations is purchased by the group. Kane said it can sometimes take $4,000 to $5,000 to finish up the requests.
"There has not been a year yet where every request hasn't been met," he said.
In order to accomplish this, the service-learning group fundraises throughout the year. Their next fundraiser, "NM Unplugged," is coming up on Dec. 7. The event, organized by student coordinator Matt White, will feature local musicians, mostly students, as well as Starbucks coffee and desserts. The entry fee is either $5 or a new, packaged toy. The event usually pulls in about $1,000.
"For me, it's great just to see my students really adore this program and really work hard to make it work. Come hell or high water, they will make it work," he said.
Ryden said it can become stressful leading up to wrapping day, but it's all worth it in the end.
"It makes it all worthwhile in the end because I know I made someone else's day a little brighter," she said.