FORT MEADE, Md. (Army News Service, Dec. 17, 2012) -- For nearly four hours Dec. 13, gifts for more than 550 children of area military families were wrapped in a back room of McGill Training Center and sent home ready for the holidays.

Project USO Elf, organized by USO-Metro, assisted the families by providing gifts for children of service members. USO-Metro also hosted the Project Elf at Fort Belvoir, Va., to provide gifts for 736 children. Between the two distribution sites, nearly 1,300 youngsters received gifts through the program.

"I think the program is wonderful. It is the most amazing thing I've ever seen," said Spc. Mittchell Williams, as his children's presents were wrapped by an "elf."

In its third year, Project USO Elf aims to assist military families facing economic hardships by providing toys for their children during the holidays. Service members are signed up for the program by senior enlisted leaders of their organizations or can request to be registered.

"Once we have all the kids registered, we go out and open our website to donor registration," said Pamela Horton, Warrior and Family Center manager for USO-Metro. "Then we start matching up donors with children. They go shopping for them. And so all the gifts that are here, have been purchased individually by our donors specifically for the children in the program."

Horton said this year's program at Fort Meade was bigger than in past years because USO-Metro absorbed the Army Community Service's Angel Tree project. By taking over the program, USO was able to request donations and saved ACS 600 man hours.

Beginning Dec. 10, volunteers packaged gifts and decorated the large room before families arrived three days later. When the doors opened, a long line stretched from the main door to the corner.

More than 30 volunteers from Alliant Techsystems Inc., or ATK, assisted with the event, wrapping gifts or searching for the family's stash of presents.

Mike Kahn, ATK senior vice president and president of ATK Defense Group, said the staff enjoys being able to help and meeting with military families.

"When you see their faces light up, and you see the parents when they open up the bags and seeing what's inside, it makes all the difference," Kahn said.

Kendall Digiovanni, a volunteer from ATK, spent the evening searching for an array of gifts including bicycles, play sets and games. Behind a makeshift wall covered in wrapping paper, the gifts were spread out in their red bags for the "pickers" to bring to the families on the other side of the wall.

"When they come back with a tag and a number, I run down the rows and pick up the boxes," Digiovanni said at the event. "It's a lot of fun."

Horton said the minimum value of the gift package is $50, but the average value is more than $100. Project USO Elf, she said, helps alleviate the financial burdens of the holiday season.

"It really makes a difference for them," Horton said. "They can now concentrate on other things."

Williams, who was registered in Project Elf for the past two years, called the program a "wonderful opportunity" and had encouraged other service members in his unit to participate.

"It really does help," he said. "It's overwhelming. I was never expecting to get anything near this."

Through Project USO Elf, Williams picked up bicycles and an educational game for his 3-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. He said his children will be excited when they unwrap the gifts.

"I can't wait to see the look on their faces," he said.