CHAMPAIGN — Piled in the expansive Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house at the University of Illinois, 500 toys seem like a lot.
But put them in the hands of more than 500 kids at Garden Hills Elementary School, and they really begin to mean something.
The fraternity again used its Pike Presents program to give gifts to students at the Champaign school Thursday.
In Valeri Warren's classroom, students had trouble concentrating on school activities while fraternity members Nick Virgilio and Michael Broccolino stood outside with huge bags full of presents, one for each student.
Principal Cheryl O'Leary's voice came over the intercom, telling students the Pikes had a special surprise for them because they'd worked so hard all semester.
Warren had her students wait to open their presents as the fraternity members called each student by name. Some turned their packages end over end, while others shook them and others just plain peeked in their gift bags.
But once given the all-clear, the "oohs" and "aahs" and "yays" began.
"This is exactly what I wanted," one said. Another asked if he would be able to take his new game and ball home.
And it was the same all around the building: Kids cradling baby dolls and stuffed animals. One of Warren's kindergartners unwrapped a stocking cap made to look like a dog and a dog Pillow Pet. Her favorite dogs, she explained, were poodles and Chihuahuas. Students opened packages of basketballs, guns that shot foam darts — one received a guitar and another a skateboard.
For the majority of students, the items they received, they'd asked for on a wish list. Organizers had to do some shuffling, though, for presents that got mixed up.
The Pikes Presents process starts when the school's children are asked to fill out a wish list for things they'd ask for if being rewarded for academic success.
They ask for typical things, O'Leary said: Hot Wheels, Bratz dolls, wrestling belts.
But one asked for a teddy bear for a little sister who didn't have any toys. In the past, a student asked for a shirt so his or her mother would have something to wear to work.
"These might be the only gifts these kids get," O'Leary said, and she knows many of the students have tough home environments. More than 85 percent of the school's students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The school then compiles those wishes into lists by classroom and gives them to the project's fraternity co-chairmen, Virgilio and Ben Grozier, along with their other fraternity members.
The Pikes — about 180 active members — passed out the lists to sororities around campus. Then, the women divvied up the lists and shopped for the children over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Earlier this week, the Pikes went around to the sorority houses, bringing carloads of items back to their house.
Other sorority members dropped gifts by the fraternity house, which is newly built. It features large double doors in front, with a foyer and two sitting rooms with plenty of space to stash toys of all kinds. Some were totally wrapped and labeled with a student's name, some wrapped but unlabeled (the Pikes had to give those special attention to figure out what student they were intended for) and some poking out of bags and totally unwrapped.
Last year, members didn't have the luxury of space — the fraternity was staying in an apartment complex while their new house was built.
Lists of classrooms, with their students and gifts requested, made a wrinkled pile on a large coffee table as members went through the job of sorting and organizing.
While describing their most popular gift requests, some members looked just longingly enough at the Nerf guns and Transformers figures. They also saw plenty of Zhu-Zhu Pets, Baby Alives and a game called Pop the Pig.
Members stopped in throughout the week to help, Virgilio said, despite the impending stress of studying for finals. The tests officially start today, but Virgilio said he had a final Wednesday. Trying to manage both the gifts to Garden Hills students and finals wasn't too bad, he said.
"It's worth it," he said.
The school and the fraternity became connected when a woman on staff there had a son who was a member. He started the present-giving tradition, and it grew as sorority members helped fraternity members with shopping and wrapping.
"From there, it really took hold," O'Leary said. Since then, the Pikes have tutored students at Garden Hills and even paid for the expenses for a free medical clinic at the school in 2008.
They've given money for playground equipment, books for classrooms and art supplies.
That tradition holds true — Virgilio said the Tri Delta sorority donated presents for kids in five or six classes, brought by extra presents in case the young men came up short, as well as a small mound of shopping bags filled with school supplies. Eighteen sororities in all donated to the Garden Hills students.
O'Leary said this year's Pikes Presents ranks up there with one of the best, much of it because of the fraternity's organization and attention to detail.
She said the boy who received the guitar told her it was "the only thing I ever wanted," and a girl marveled at the Easy Bake Oven that was just what she wished for.
She also appreciated the fact that the fraternity and sorority members gave because they wanted to.
"The fact that they enjoy the kids so much, too, it's overwhelming," O'Leary said. "I just don't think people understand how some University of Illinois students that aren't involved in athletics, that aren't in service organizations, they do too give back to the community."