Nearly 300 families throughout Delaware will have presents under the tree this Christmas, thanks to Operation Christmas Child, an annual charity drive founded by Bunker Hill Elementary School first-grade teacher Alisha Gravatt in 2007.

During her first Christmas as a teacher in the Appoquinimink School District, Alisha Gravatt asked one of her students if he was excited about the holiday.

“He said, ‘Ms. Gravatt, I hate Christmas,’” she recalled last week. “He told me his parents could never afford to give him any presents, so every year his classmates would come to school talking about all the toys they received while he had nothing. He told me he couldn’t wait for the season to be over.”

Gravatt said her heart ached for that little boy.

So when the next Christmas came around, the first-grade teacher organized donation drives among each grade level at Bunker Hill Elementary School that provided Christmas gifts to five local students and their families.

The following year, she teamed up with the Middletown Walmart and 94.7 WDSD to organize the first Operation Christmas Wish, which collected enough donations from the community to help 35 families in the Appoquinimink School District.

Now six years later, the single-day donation drive at the Middletown Walmart – combined with similar Operation Christmas Wish efforts organized by Communities in Schools at the Christiana and Dover malls – has collected gifts for 285 families in 11 school districts throughout the state.

“Each year, it’s become more successful as word gets out and people become aware of it,” Gravatt said while collecting donations at Walmart last weekend. “But I never expected it to go statewide and get as big as it’s become.”

During this year’s statewide donation drive, shoppers stopped by Operation Christmas Wish tables and perused a list of gift items chosen by the families in need, each of whom were identified by social workers in their respective school districts.

Shoppers then purchased one or more of the items on the family’s list and drop the tax-deductible donations off at Operation Christmas Wish, which delivers the items to the families the following week.

Many of those who stopped by the Middletown Walmart on Dec. 14 said donating to the organization has become part of their Christmas tradition.

“It’s something we do every year,” said Middletown resident Wanda Lafferty, who, along with her three daughters, donated pajamas, toys and gift cards. “We’ve had our rough times so we like to help out when we can.”

Lafferty’s 12-year-old daughter Lexi added, “It makes us feel better to know someone else is going to have a better Christmas.”

Cousins Collin Wallendorf, 11, Connor Wallendorf, 9, and Zachary Kinnamon, 10, said they agreed to make donations to Operation Christmas Wish this year rather than exchange presents among each other.

“We think it’s good to help out people in our hometown rather than spend money on each other,” Collin said. “We just like doing good things.”

In recent years, Lifehouse Church in Middletown also has joined the cause by “adopting” five families, while Walmart typically donates any items left over once the donation drive is complete, Gravatt said.

This year, Hogs and Heroes Delaware Chapter 2 also collected monetary donations to Operation Christmas Wish in exchange for photos taken with Santa.

“I was fortunate when I was growing up that my parents instilled in me the value of giving back and taking care of your community,” said Gravatt, a 2003 Middletown High graduate. “And that’s one of the things I love about the M.O.T. area. When someone is in need, we all come together to help. Knowing that community effort is going to ensure a merry Christmas for so many children is just an amazing feeling that can’t be measured.”