When Our Neighbor's Child (ONC) began in 1992, a few Virginia Run residents collected enough new toys to provide Christmas gifts for 31 needy children in the local area.
Now in its 11th year, the all-volunteer ONC is still going strong — but, boy, has the need ever grown.
"We just got another list from the county," said ONC clothing coordinator Tracy McInturff, Monday night. "We're up to 230 families."
"I just got 43 new families today," added toy coordinator Kathy Sposa. "It's the most we've ever gotten in one day — and we got 30, a few days ago." By Tuesday, 12 more families materialized.
"We're now up to 242, and my fax machine [receiving referrals from the county] is still cranking," said ONC founder and Executive Director Kelly Lavin, Tuesday evening. "I haven't had the heart to tell Kathy, yet, because I know she was calling the families she already has, late into the night."
This nonprofit, community-based group is mainly fueled by moms, but lots of dads and kids help, too. McInturff and Sposa, both of Centreville's Sully Station II community, plus Lavin of Centreville's Hunt Chase community, are the main cogs in the wheel. But by the time the last doll, winter coat and Christmas cookie have all been delivered, a couple hundred people have participated in the massive undertaking.
The Fairfax County Department of Social Services provides ONC with a list of families needing help. Some of their referrals come from local schools, and all are screened for eligibility. Then ONC callers phone the families to find out their specific needs, such as a girl's coat, size 8, or a toy train for a 7-year-old boy.
The information is relayed to McInturff and Sposa, who both spread the word throughout the community until the needs are filled. Girl Scouts and individual residents are doing their part and, said Sposa, "We have 17 area churches helping through 'giving trees.'" Tags listing particular needs are placed on Christmas trees in the churches and then congregation members choose tags and buy the new clothes and toys listed.
And this Saturday, Dec. 7, local Girl Scouts will be standing in front of the Fair Lakes Wal-Mart, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., to give specific-needs information to interested customers as they enter the store. The customers may then purchase these items and leave them, unwrapped, at a specially designated tree inside Wal-Mart.
A clothing drop-off is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 8, at the Sully Station I Community Center at 5101 Sequoia Farms Drive (across from the Safeway store) in Centreville. Residents wishing to contribute may call McInturff at 703-222-6669 to find out the specific items and sizes needed.
However, since family referrals are still coming in, fast and furious, she'll be accepting clothing until Christmas Eve. "The clothing need this year has about doubled," she said. "Warm clothing, such as socks, hats, gloves, shirts and pants, is especially needed."
And Our Neighbor's Child is aptly named, for all the recipients are members of the local community. Most live in Centreville and Clifton, as well as in other parts of western Fairfax County, such as Chantilly. McInturff believes the plummeting economy and the loss of jobs by so many people here were responsible for this holiday season's increased need for help.
"These are hard times — this is a tough year," she said. "And we appreciate everyone helping — the outpouring of people calling to offer help has been just tremendous Anything anyone can do is wonderful."
Underscoring McInturff's words, Sposa said this year is "by far, the biggest year we've ever had [in terms of requests for] help." She, too, points toward the economy, as does Lavin.
"Our donor base is less because companies have laid off people and they don't have the money to contribute as much, this year," said Lavin. "So we're just holding our breath. Besides a list of families to help, the county also gives us a list of donor companies [who'll contribute]. But this time, we only have 1/10th as many donor companies from the county as we usually have."
Last year, ONC volunteers provided clothing and toys for 150-180 families total; but December has just begun and they've already surpassed that number. That's why, said Lavin, "We have to make people aware of [the situation]. The more people that know, hopefully, the more people that will help."
Sposa said ONC could really use extra donations, as well as extra help. Volunteers are still needed for a variety of jobs, including helping to package the gifts for individual families. ONC moms plan to hold their first packaging sessions next Tuesday-Wednesday, Dec. 10-11. To volunteer for this or any other ONC task, visit the www.ourneighborschild.org Web site and click on "current needs" or "volunteer opportunities."
People may also help by sending tax-deductible, monetary contributions to Our Neighbor's Child at P.O. Box 276, Centreville, VA 20120. Since ONC has no overhead or administrative expenses, 100 percent of all donations is used for toys or clothing for needy families. Those wishing to donate toys may also do so by e-mailing Sposa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She's lending a hand with the clothing effort, too, as is Holly Cameron of Virginia Run. Chesterbrook Academy in Herndon has also come through for ONC. "Lots of their teachers live in Centreville," explained McInturff. "The school has taken on 28 families to clothe, and it's also doing a sock-and-mitten drive. One of the moms there, Mary Mason, has especially been a big help."
Brightening the holidays for families in need is hard work, but the ONC volunteers don't let the enormity of their task deter them one bit. They know how much it means to the parents receiving the gifts to be able to give them to their children for Christmas.
"It's a wonderful thing, and we want to help as many people as we can," said McInturff. "And this brings the community together. You help your neighbors — that's what it's all about."
Sposa has participated in ONC for 10 years and says it's truly rewarding. "We definitely have a lot of fun because we're doing it together," she said. "And now I can't imagine the holidays without [this project]. It just wouldn't be right, knowing how much of a need is out there."
Agreeing, McInturff said, "It's just such a good feeling to do it — to know you're helping other families." However, added Sposa, "Without this community, this would not be happening — everybody contributes something."
"The whole of western Fairfax is pulling together for their neighbors," said Lavin. She also recognized the tremendous efforts and untiring dedication of all the ONC volunteers. "We absolutely couldn't do it, year after year, without these people who come back and give so much of themselves," she said. "They're a phenomenal group of people with huge hearts."