AVON PARK - It was about 20 years ago when Bill and Jean Rapp became elves, Santa Clauses and reindeer, all at the same time, and they're still making the figurative metamorphosis annually.
For two decades, the Rapps have been asking friends and family to donate a wrapped Christmas toy or other gift to be given to area organizations or churches as presents for children in low-income families.
Throughout the year, the husband and wife, through the efforts of a core group of friends -- the "elves" -- buy and collect toys, hobby kits, books and school supplies for needy children around Highlands County.
The charitable practice began in the early 1990s when the Rapps were living in Mukwonago, Wis., where they started donating toys to their church, St. James Catholic, after their children were grown and gone. When they moved to Avon Park in 2008, they carried on their gift-raising program.
This year, the Rapps and their friends spent about two hours the morning of Dec. 13 unloading their van full of presents and organizing them in a storage shed at the Avon Park Church Service Center, 198 Rowe St., a church-sponsored food and resource center for low-income families.
Five years ago, friends and neighbors donated between 50 and 60 gifts; this year, more than 400 presents were given out at Church Services -- 175 of those supplied by the Rapps. That's about 15 presents of more cheer and happiness collected compared to last December.
Although it's literally a handful keeping their program going year after year, the Rapps said the payoff of the warming feeling of benevolence keeps them going
"Neighbors would come up and ask us, 'What are you doing with that stack of boxes?' I would explain it and they just want to get involved," said retired flower shop owner Jean Rapp, as she unloaded an armful of boxes. "We get anything from something small to some great; some have one item, some have a whole box of stuff."
Among the presents typically donated, 95 percent of which are new with a few coming from second-hand shops, are board games, pull toys, activity bags with coloring books, crayons and pencils, dolls, toy trucks and cars, girls' and teen tops, sport balls and fingernail kits.
Bill Rapp, a retired carpenter, said the donations are usually collected just before Christmas and continue the rest of the year after the season. He said along with his wife, friends Jean Lacey, Dawn Fleetwood, Ann Flores, Juan Riter, Nancy Davis and Gwen Mischke are the "elves," helping with collection, storage and delivery.
"We were neighbors in Wisconsin. I've been helping and I want to help because it's special. I want to see children and parents happy, to make their Christmas happy," said Mischke.
They were at Church Services, unloading the gifts and stacking them in the storage shed.
John Jeffo, executive director of the Church Service Center, said with approximately 1,300 families on the center's rolls, there are more than enough children who need gifts.
Through volunteers, the outreach center offers food, clothing, furniture, temporary housing, utilities, rent and gasoline to anyone who qualifies under United States Department of Agriculture guidelines for assistance and is a member of a church in Avon Park.
To get a present, Jeffo said the center checks files, divides names under girls and boys, and parents or guardians come in and pick up the gifts.
Gifts are also given out through Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church and the Highlands County women's shelter
"It really brings in a lot of smiles. It livens up Christmas for them," he said.
According to The National Center for Children in Poverty 2011 statistics, in Florida there were 2,030,000 families with 3,876,000 children. Twenty-three percent of children live in poor families, defined as income below 100 percent of the federal poverty level.
In total, the Rapps said most of the new presents people donate costs between a dollar and $10 for Christmas this year. They said they plan to continue next year and hope to keep increasing the annual yuletide giving.
"I just love to give. It's just a joy to be given the opportunity to help others," said Jean.