"She just loves sorting pencils," said Jessica Messenger, a staffer at Floyd Training & Service Center for developmentally disabled adults.

Julia and four of her fellow students — Andrew Thomas, Travis Steele, Stella Gibbons and Shawnta Greene — were making and filling Christmas gift bags at the Angel Express office.

Janet Baltzer, founder and director of the local nonprofit, calls the rotating group of special needs adult volunteers her Bravehearts. The presents they were assembling Thursday are destined for Highland Rivers Health clients at a five-county Christmas banquet later this month.

"Our mission is to bring joy to those who receive and a sense of purpose to those who give," Baltzer said. "To me, it's just as important to give folks like this a chance to give back."

Shawnta said that's why she tries to be among the FTC volunteers who go to Angel Express for an hour each week: To help other people and to work with her friends.

Her comment set off a spate of giggles from the others gathered around a table heaped with donated items ranging from toothbrushes and memo pads to warm socks and puzzle books.

"You're making me work hard," Stella said with a mock frown as she reached for some more Christmas stickers to dab onto a bag.

"Do you like to work hard?" Messenger asked conversationally.

"Yes, ma'am," Stella said, nodding emphatically and bursting into laughter with her friends.

They also spent some time filling dozens of Christmas coffee mugs with packets of Swiss Miss cocoa, and starting on gift bags that will go to the men at STAR House, a residential addiction treatment center in Rome.

Baltzer said there will be 200 bags and 200 mugs for the Highland Rivers banquet. Volunteers from the nearby Women's Outreach Center were expected to walk over later to finish them up.

The Bravehearts have been busy this season, though. Baltzer said they just made 50 Christmas cards and ornaments for U.S. troops serving overseas. They're also putting together care packages for local firefighters and K-9 officers as well as disaster and fire victims.

A wide variety of organizations and community groups assist Baltzer and her Angel Express crew, who focus their work on helping the helpers. She said she rarely gets to see the gifts get to recipients, which is one reason she loves having the FTC Bravehearts pitch in.

"I get my pleasure from watching the volunteers, seeing them feel a sense of accomplishment," Baltzer said. "It's fun to watch them blossom."