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At her Dec. 6 sentencing for shoplifting, Winona Ryder was hit with 480 hours of community service that she must complete by April 7. She’ll spend 120 hours at Caring for Children and Families with AIDS, which runs two group homes for children. But there’s one problem: Ryder can’t work with any of the kids. The county requires an FBI background check of all volunteers before they’re allowed to interact with children at the group homes. A felony conviction makes a volunteer ineligible, which means Ryder will spend her three weeks in the front office, answering phones and entering computer data or working with the organization’s outreach program. “There are a variety of things she could do,” says executive director Jackie Gelfand, whose main concern is overeager paparazzi. “Hopefully, nobody will find out when she starts.”

Courteney Cox Arquette continues to stretch and expand her reach—as a homeowner. The actress, who has bought a half-dozen homes in L.A., then sold them after remodeling, has just purchased two more, according to a neighbor. She and husband David Arquette paid $5.8 million for the houses, located next to each other in the Hollywood Hills. But this time, instead of refurbishing them, I’m told she might tear both down and build a brand-new house, something she’s been wanting to do. Cox just sold her last project—a five-bedroom house in Brentwood—to talk show host Ricki Lake for $6.5 million. Cox bought the property in 1996 for close to $2.1 million, netting a hefty profit. Who needs Friends?

A few folks working on hit TV shows didn’t mind spreading a little wealth around for the holidays. Ray Romano and executive producer Phil Rosenthal gave the 100-plus cast and crew of Everybody Loves Raymond a TiVo, the digital video recorder, with a lifetime subscription service contract—a $600 value. The Frasier folks got a trip to Las Vegas with a two-night stay at the Bellagio and tickets to Cirque du Soleil’s O show, worth about $1,000. And over at C.S.I., William Petersen bought the team a huge trailer filled with expensive exercise equipment costing thousands of dollars.

Natalie Portman and Britney Spears, who met more than a year ago at a listening party for the pop princess’s latest album, became such fast friends that the 21-year-olds decided to ring in the New Year together. At press time they were planning to throw a joint dinner party in the penthouse of Manhattan’s Hudson hotel, each inviting 20 lucky guests.

Hugh Grant gave Sandra Bullock an unusual present when they began filming Two Weeks Notice in New York City last year. He presented her with a chess set based on the Kama Sutra, the ancient Indian text on sexual practice, with each piece being anatomically correct. In return Bullock gave him lots of gift baskets during production—all of which contained condoms. “She wanted to make sure he was careful,” says a source close to the movie. In fact, the actors may owe whatever onscreen chemistry they have to a shared sensibility. Explains Bullock: “It really comes down to toilet humor.”