TOWNSEND -- Over the years, the Giving Tree project has contributed a lot to the community. This year, the organizers hope to secure more donations than ever before.
Three hundred gifts for children and people in shelters. Thousands of dollars for local and international donations. Holiday food baskets for families.
The key, said North Middlesex Regional High School faculty adviser Ray Kane, is to give people the help they need while at the same time allowing everyone to keep their dignity.
It's a cliche, he said, "but it's a hand up, not a handout."
Kane organizes the service-learning programs at the school. Students go to New Orleans or New York and work with people struggling with poverty.
It feels different when the people in need are close to home, he said.
Families who might need something, like presents or food, so they can afford to pay the electric bill, get a call from Kane.
"Those are hard phone calls to make," he said, "It's a humbling experience for me."
Everyone needs help sometime, and there are no strings attached with the gifts from the school program.
"They are our community," he said of the recipients.
Families who are picking up presents from the school can arrange to come in confidentially.
By participating in the Giving Tree, students learn to contribute to their community, Kane said.
"We have it fairly easy up here," said junior Matthew White from Pepperell, the group's financial coordinator.
"You go into Fitchburg, it's not the same," he said.
An experience at Our Father's House, an adult homeless shelter in Fitchburg, jumped out at White.
The learning group was at the shelter, to prepare and serve a meal.
"The women were coming in to eat dinner. They were shaky. They were hungry. They looked hazy," he said.
"At the same time, they were really appreciative," he said.
"That's why we do this, to help people," White said.
The tree is located right inside the main door of the school. The donations are collected and stored in Kane's room until it is time to organize and wrap them all.
As cards with gift requests are removed by donors, more cards are placed on the tree.
Despite the slack economy, the giving from the high school community has been high. This is the first year that all the requests have been posted on the tree, Kane said.
The project held two fundraisers, a coffee house and a men's fashion show, and raised $1,400. The group hopes to raise between $4,000 and $5,000 this year, Kane said.
They are doing well. By mid-December the group had already raised nearly $4,000, Kane said.
The fun part begins Saturday, Dec. 15, when more than 100 students are expected to gather in the school cafeteria for gift organization day.
Distributing the money is easy. The group can just cut a check to send to Citizens Energy or Heifer International. A few families might get a direct donation for help with fuel, but not usually, Kane said.
The other donations will be sorted and wrapped during the gift organization day. If any requests are left unfilled, cash donations will be used to purchase presents.
The big sorting day is open to anyone who would like to help. Just show up at 9 a.m. or later and stay as long as you would like.
"We try to give everybody a chance to get involved," Kane said.