Inside the temporary holiday headquarters of the Family Resource Center, Santa's little helpers are up to their stocking caps in presents and wrapping paper.
Imagine having to wrap Christmas presents for about 1,300 children, most of whom receive six or seven gifts apiece. The process also involves making sure the right gifts wind up with the right child. A computer program helps. So do highly experienced volunteers.
On Saturday, the race against time raged on at the Family Resource Center, temporarily housed at the old Scotty's hardware store at the Citrus Center shopping center. About 30 volunteers are wrapping presents under the direction of Ginger West. They will work through today and Tuesday.
The scene inside resembles a gift-wrapping factory.
Some workers fill gift orders, putting the unwrapped presents inside a large, clear plastic bag. These are dropped into a "To Be Wrapped" corral. At any given time there are dozens of these large bags in the pen, each containing six or seven gifts.
Wrappers pick up the bags and take them to the wrapping tables. After wrapping, the bags are deposited into another corral. From there they are cataloged and stored, awaiting pickup or delivery. Several dozen empty cardboard boxes, which once stored refrigerators and clothes dryers, serve as storage bins for the wrapped presents.
The process goes on nonstop. By the time it's over, families in need will have plenty of nice Christmas gifts. These are not hand-me-downs. They are new clothes and toys. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of presents in the building. All were donated by locals, either through their work or privately, for needy children in Citrus County.
If you need a reminder of Christmas love, as I did, show up for a few hours of volunteer work at the Family Resource Center. The act of wrapping gifts purchased by a stranger for a child whom you will never know makes you appreciate the spirit of the holiday season.
When I stepped in Saturday for my volunteering stint, West's associates were slightly hesitant to even let me speak to her. Noting her workload, they tried to explain she was under a lot of stress attempting to meet deadline.
Undaunted, I approached her and introduced myself. When she turned to me, her narrow eyes seemed to focus on a spot about 100 yards beyond my head.
Rising from her computer station, West said, "Glad you're here. Come on and let me show you what we do."
Except she was speaking so fast it came out "Gladtoseeyou. Comeonandletme showyouwhatwedo."
Speaking in the same rushed manner, she explained how to wrap the presents, make the labels and check off the gifts from an index card.
Except she spoke so fast I didn't catch even one word.
West said she was sleep-deprived and running on coffee fumes.
Not wanting to add to her burden, I explained that I could catch on real quick by just joining a wrapping crew. I walked over to the first empty spot, at a table just a few feet away. By the time I got there, West had already walked several times that distance, booted up her computer and was furiously tapping the keys.
My wrapping mentor was Wonetta Cooper. She was very kind and pretended not to notice my clumsy attempts at wrapping presents. It's much harder than it seems. Somehow, the amount of paper never seems to cover the back of the present, no matter how much slack I allow. Also, the small items are very difficult. Someone is going to receive a diary wrapped in a glob of paper and clear tape. Sorry about that.
Why does wrapping paper come in 3-foot-wide rolls when some presents are only 9 inches across? What does one do with the scraps? Don't the wrapping paper manufacturers realize this?
From Cooper, I learned several tricks of master wrappers.
Tear off several 1-inch strips of clear tape and attach them loosely to your forearm. As you wrap, you'll have tape ready to go instead of having to fumble with a dispenser during a crucial wrapping moment.
A regular folding table is too low and stooping hurts your back. Propping up the legs on four vegetable cans brings it up to a proper height. Be very careful about bumping the table from the side, though.
If the gift already comes in a pretty box, you don't need to wrap it. Just put a bow or ribbon on it.
Only weenies complain about paper cuts.
Cooper, a longtime resident of Inverness, said she volunteered because an even longer time ago, she and her family came on hard times.
"People helped me then. We had nice Christmases. So now I'm paying a little bit of it back," she said.
As the Christmas countdown dwindles down, more gift wrappers are needed at the Family Resource Center. It's between Payless Shoes and Citrus Cinemas at the Citrus Center on State Road 44.
You don't have to bring anything, though a chair and perhaps a pair of scissors will come in handy.
And you will leave with a very nice gift, the kind that will never show up on a credit card bill in January.