AUGUSTA — At first there is uncertainty as Karyn Sweeney approaches, but as she introduces herself and hands over the wrapped gift in her hands, the expression changes. There is a smile, maybe even a flooding of the eyes and, if Sweeney has her way, a huge hug. Sweeney approaches as a stranger, but somewhere in those few minutes, there is an instant connection.

“This is probably the best Christmas I’ve ever had in my life,” Sweeney says. “There are lots of free hugs. It’s awesome.”

Sweeney, 41, of Monmouth, has since Saturday given away more than 200 gifts in 15 towns, from South Portland to Skowhegan and in stores ranging from L.L. Bean to Cumberland Farms. Sweeney, who estimates she has given away about $2,000 worth of presents ranging in cost from a couple of dollars to $30, never identifies herself to the people to whom she gives. She says instead that she is traveling all around the state to give gifts to strangers. The targets of the charity are picked completely at random.

“It’s just when I see someone and I feel like they could use a gift,” she said. “It’s just whatever speaks to me.”

Several people have cried at the spontaneous generosity and dozens have thanked Sweeney in the best way she knows: With a hug. Only one person has refused the gift, she said, and only a handful have even asked why she wants to give them a gift.

“The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive,” she said.

Sweeney set up a Facebook page — search Gift from a Stranger — to help alleviate any suspicion people might have about the gift.

“I’m nuts, but in a charitable way,” she said, laughing.

The Facebook page is listed on a greeting card that encourages the recipient to “keep it, enjoy it or give it away to someone else.” The card encourages the recipients to “remember the good in your fellow man.”

Some of those who received the gifts have left messages on the page, including one woman who expressed thanks for the gift given to her 11-year-old son.

“We were a little overwhelmed by the hustle,” she wrote. “There were many rude people rushing around. She made everything better.”

Those are the messages that give Sweeney, who is high-energy by nature, an extra shot of joy. The impact has been a surprise, even to Sweeney, who started the giveaway after purchasing items for a gift store that she planned to open in Gardiner. When those plans fell through Sweeney returned the items she could, but that left her with a number of items, such as pottery, scarfs and candles, that still needed a new home. She has since added to the inventory of items she will give away.

“I had all this inventory left,” Sweeney said. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do with it. I’m going to give it away.'”

Sweeney, who has a background in business and marketing, is self-employed as a private consultant. She at one time owned Mother Mabel’s, which sold soaps in more than 400 New England locations. It was Mother Mabel’s experience of growth that motivated Sweeney in 2010 to take on another venture: Maine Barn Raisers, a collaborative of Maine manufacturers focused on helping each other grow.

But she says none of that work has proved as fulfilling as Gift from a Stranger. Her plans now include turning Gift from a Stranger into a nonprofit organization.

“I think I’m going to continue it year round now,” she says.

Sweeney begins the day by loading up her car with about 60 gifts, which she gives away a dozen or so at a time at about five different stores she’ll visit throughout the day. Her first foray into a Walmart came Christmas eve in Augusta when she quickly wound her shopping cart of goodies up and down the aisles looking for people to match to the gifts she carried.

The first encounter came outside the store when a group of young women loaded bags into a car. Sweeney approached, explained what she was doing, and handed over a pack of pretty note cards. The recipient’s friends said the gift was extra special because it was given in the midst of a personal struggle in the woman’s life. Hearing that, Sweeney quickly abandoned her cart and rushed back to offer the woman a hug.

The process continued inside the store. There was a young boy who got a snowball maker and a young girl who received pajamas. Rose Worster, of China, was in the toothpaste aisle looking for last-minute stocking stuffers when Sweeney approached and gave her a box of cards. Worster gave Sweeney a hug.

“That was very nice of her,” Worster said. “They’re really cute.”

Worster acknowledged she was initially confused about what Sweeney was doing.

“It was very sweet, though,” she said. “And she gives really nice hugs.”

The other recipients included a woman, two men and parents with two children.

“Can I open it now?” a boy asked when given the wrapped gift.

Sweeney said she never let anyone know her identity, but she made her identity public and approached media outlets at the encouragement of friends who said she needed to get the word out.

“I’d just appreciate it if I can inspire other people to do the same,” she said.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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