They came armed with scissors, tape, wrapping paper, bows and creativity.
Representatives of nine nonprofit organizations went head to head Wednesday morning in a gift-wrapping competition sponsored by Quattro Caffe at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
A panel of judges circled the restaurant to see which charity could pull off the most elaborately decorated package in 15 minutes.
Volunteers Jana Sunderland and Shaun Smith of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to children with serious medical conditions, said their package was inspired by a 5-year-old girl named Aydin, whose wish was to be a singer.
When she was younger, doctors thought Aydin, who has WAGR syndrome, a rare genetic condition that affects the development of many bodily systems, would be unable to speak. But with the organization's support, she was able to sing recently with friends in a recording studio.
"The miracle behind that is so precious," Smith said.
Sunderland and Smith taped pink wrapping paper to a shipping box and stacked a black-papered box with black paper plates to look like a speaker. The two packages were then crowned with studded microphones made of toilet paper rolls.
"This was about bling and sparkle," Smith said. "We went crazy." A soundtrack of Aydin singing Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga hits played at the women's table.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides advocacy and free educational programs for families and individuals affected by mental illness, designed a winter wonderland-themed box with polar bears, white bark and trees.
Grandma's House of Hope, a nonprofit providing services to women, children and families living in poverty, dressed a box in the organization's signature green and purple.
Other participating groups were American Family Housing, Child SHARE, Foster Care Auxiliary of Orange County, Free Wheelchair Mission, Child Abuse Prevention Center and the Orange County Symphony.
Daily Pilot columnist Barbara Venezia, one of the four judges, said, "I think it's incredibly creative, especially since I can't wrap to save my life."
Venezia said she was looking for contestants who used ordinary items to make new things. She worried that some with too-grand ambitions would run out of time.
Chef Antonio Cagnolo, who operates South Coast Plaza's Antonello Ristorante and its three sister restaurants, Quattro Caffe, Nello Cucina and Antonello Espresso Bar, said the event is a way for him to help the community.
"It's just a fun way to give back," Cagnolo said. "It's wonderful to help these causes."
Once the 15 minutes had elapsed, the judges tallied their votes and Cagnolo presented the Make-A-Wish Foundation with a $2,500 catering package that he will prepare with his staff.
Smith, who said it took her team three days to come up with the idea and assemble the accessories for the package, was overjoyed.