When I joined the volunteer corps at Operation Hope more than a year ago I was astonished at the number of tasks one can do once signed up. I helped plan the annual spring gala, was a driver to pick up produce from another charitable organization to Operation Hope's food pantry, worked the annual tag sale and made my specialty, lasagna, for the clients' dinner (and on a 90-plus-degree summer day, by the way).

But one of the most rewarding and greatest times I had all year was volunteering to wrap presents for Hope for the Holidays. Not only was it gratifying to know that I was helping to brighten the holiday for some people, I made new friends and reacquainted myself with old ones. Next week, I will be doing it again. I look forward to it.

After my shifts sorting and wrapping presents, I wrote the following piece for Operation Hope's website. With permission from Executive Director Carla Miklos, I am reprinting it here. It aptly describes how I felt, and will undoubtedly feel again.

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When I was a child believing in the magic of Santa Claus, I always was fascinated by his elves. I wondered, how did they get all that work done in time for Santa to make his deliveries?

In the first week of December, I got to be an elf.

I joined the volunteer ranks of Operation Hope in the fall, and when Volunteer Manager Michelle Stearns put out the call for help for the Hope for the Holidays program, I jumped at the chance. I signed up for two four-hour shifts.

Every year, the program identifies hundreds of people -- children, elderly, single parents and entire families -- who will be "adopted" by a family, individual, school, civic group or business. Their "wish lists" are fulfilled by the donors and the gifts are sorted, wrapped and delivered by the volunteers.

Santa's workshop was in the lower level of a building at St. Anthony of Padua Church on South Pine Creek Road. The volunteer elves were greeted by the chief elf, Evie Angel (how appropriate is that last name?), who has coordinated the gift-giving program for a number of years. The extremely organized Evie gave the elves some basic instructions and the work commenced. The austere room was quickly filled with the sounds of holiday music, the chatter of the volunteers and the rustling of wrapping paper as we got to work.

And the donors arrived in a constant stream with their bundles of holiday joy.

One of the first things the volunteers realized about the wish lists was that no one asked for anything ostentatious. There were no flat-screen TVs or Wii's or exercise equipment among their requests. Instead, the recipients wanted the simple things that those of us who are more fortunate take for granted -- like bedding, a warm winter coat, gloves and hats or underwear. The wishes of the children were just want children should have -- toys, games and books.

One woman only wanted two basic items for herself. I wondered why, but soon the answer was obvious. She put her children above herself; she wanted to ensure her kids were given a merry Christmas.

The simplicity made me cry.

Many, many years ago (probably when I was a young teen), my sister and her best friend decided they would not give each other Christmas presents. Instead, for that year they would take the money they normally would spend and find a family who needed a happier holiday than they. The night they delivered the presents, they asked me to come along. I never will forget the look of gratitude on the single mom's face as she helped carry boxes and boxes of presents into her small apartment.

That moment came to mind as I sorted and wrapped presents for Hope for the Holidays. I may have come home after my two shifts tired, with a back aching from lifting and wrapping presents. But more importantly, I came home with the overwhelming feeling that I helped to make the holidays brighter and warmer for some people.

I wonder if Santa's elves feel the same way.

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Being a volunteer for Operation Hope is simple. Visit its website at www.operationhopect.org and click on the "volunteer" tab. Or contact Michelle Stearns directly at mstearns@operationhopect.org or call her at 203-292-5588, ext. 228. If looking for ways to donate, the website will explain how. If you are looking for a different organization to which you can provide your time or expertise, visit its website and then call.

You won't regret it.

Patricia A. Hines can be reached at hinessight@hotmail.com. She also can be followed at http://blog.ctnews.com/hines.