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Christmas Connection Chairman Earle Knapp carries a plunger as he supervises the charity’s annual gift distribution to children in struggling families. He’s done the same thing for about 10 years, earning him the epithet “plunger boy,” because he’s found the plumbing tool makes him more approachable.

He doesn’t know why, but the plunger elicits smiles and sets clients at ease when he adjudicates the occasional dispute over which toy or how many each shopper can take, so he’s made it a tradition.

This year’s event, which started Monday and lasts five days, will serve 1,122 Charles County families 2,340 children. Participating families are chosen from those enrolled in programs with the Charles County Department of Social Services. Younger children get about five gifts, and older ones get fewer because donors tend to give toys for little kids. Each also gets a Christmas stocking; an article of clothing from a collection of new socks, hats, gloves and underwear; school supplies and books, volunteers said.

An army of 300 volunteers tracks items and escorts parents among tables in a social hall at South Potomac Church in White Plains. The gifts, sorted by age and sex, are periodically replenished from stockpiles of Monopoly boards, hobby horses and other amusements stored in adjacent rooms.

Many of this year’s volunteers are members of the U.S. Air Force stationed at Joint Base Andrews. The group also gets a steady number of people doing community service after minor brushes with the law, some of whom return as volunteers, said longtime volunteer Jeanne Dixon. One woman, who takes the week off work each year to help, was once a shopper; she came back to help once she was back on her feet.

Several years ago, Dixon said, “a lady got her arms around a man doing community service. She’s got her arms around him, and she’s sobbing. Earle came out and said, ‘We gave her a bike.’ That does it.”

This year, the group had five bikes to give away; Knapp selects families more or less at random for the special gift. While most are delighted to be able to put a new bike under the tree, one woman surprised him, Knapp said. Joking, he offered her a choice between his plunger or a brand-new kids’ bicycle.

“A few years ago, the lady said, ‘I’ll take the plunger.’ She needed a plunger. I gave her the bike and the plunger,” Knapp said.

The week marks Knapp’s 13th year with Christmas Connection, which is organized by Charles County Children’s Aid Society and other groups. He keeps coming back because “I love working with people. My mantra is: If I get a hug a day, it was worth it,” he said.

Dixon, a former Charles County resident, returned to the area from her new home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to participate for about the 18th time.

“I love it. It’s not Christmas until I do this. It’s not Christmas until Christmas Connection for me,” Dixon said.

Tuesday was Jennifer Bramwell’s first visit to Christmas Connection, where the La Plata resident was shopping for her 7-year-old daughter.

“It’s great. Actually, it makes me get teary-eyed. So many people came out and volunteered,” said Bramwell, who praised the group for letting her bend the rules to pick toys from various tables to suit Kelsey, who has disabilities.

Rhonda Cromer of Indian Head also was delighted by her first visit, where she picked out gifts for her twin 3-year-old sons.

“It will make a big difference” in what Christmas will be like for her children, she said.

emitrano@somdnews.com