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Playing Santa Claus Every Month

Best of Reston

One Christmas, the Flynns received a phone call from an unknown woman. She and her husband had chosen the name of a child from the Angel Tree the Flynns organize each year at their church, St. John Neumann Catholic Church, and were having trouble fulfilling the child's wish.

"The teachers [at the Laurel Learning Center] usually let the children pick the toys from catalogs and one year we had a woman call saying her husband was on his way to Fredericksburg because it was the only place they could find the toy," said Tom Flynn. "I told her to pick another toy that was similar and she said no that's what the child wants. She said if it were her child, she would just tell him the toy fell off Santa's truck or something, but because this may be all the child gets, they were determined to get the toy."

After several years of organizing the Angel Tree and a similar monthly birthday club for the center's children, the couple is still amazed at the generosity of their fellow parishioners. And Reston Interfaith members are amazed at the Flynns' commitment, having successfully nominated the couple for this year's Best of Reston award.

"IT SEEMS like they are really dedicated to the center and the kids here," said Courtney Park, director of the Laurel Learning Center, which provides daycare and educational services to mostly low-income families participating in the county's Child Care Assistance Program. "They bring in a gift for every child who has a birthday that month and at Christmas. In some cases this might be the only gift they get, especially at Christmas."

Each month the Flynns, who lived in Reston from 1970 to 2000 and now reside in Leesburg, get a list of the children who have a birthday along with the three gifts the child is wishing for. They then write up cards, each with a single name and gift until all the wished-for presents are represented. Parishioners anonymously select the cards, purchase the gifts, wrap them and return them to the church. The Flynns then keep track of the returned gifts, making sure each child receives all three presents. Any gifts not returned, they purchase before packing everything up in a plain bag to deliver to the center. The toys are then given to the parents by the center staff so they have presents to give to their child. At no time to the Flynns or other parishioners interact with the center's children unless it is in the halls during deliveries.

The Christmas Angel Tree works the same way. The program has become so popular that Tom Flynn said they put up the Angel Tree the Saturday before Thanksgiving and all the names are gone by Sunday. Each year, the Flynns receive about 450 requests for presents.

In addition, the Flynns organize the Thanksgiving food basket collection, conduct monthly food drives to refill the Reston Interfaith's pantry, hold school supply drives and collect new clothing and backpacks for children served by Reston Interfaith. Individually, Tom Flynn participates in a visitation program for the elderly sick and homebound, while Mary Ann Flynn, a former county teacher who worked at Terraset, Hunter Woods and Dogwood elementary schools, does tutoring at the family shelter and participates in a monthly reading program with other former teachers.

"All of this isn't possible without the support of our parish," said Mary Ann Flynn.

THE FLYNNS became active in the church's charity work when one of their three children became the head of the parish's action committee. He then got transferred overseas four-and-half years ago and the Flynns inherited the job. Two of the Flynns' grown children still live in Reston and the third, back from overseas, now lives in Rhode Island with the couple's two grandchildren.

"One of the things that surprised us in the beginning was how much need there really is. Reston is pretty affluent and it's easy to think everyone here is," Tom Flynn said. "There are some people for whom the need is temporary. They get sick and need help for their family. And there are so many new Americans who need help in the beginning just like my great-grandparents did. Ninety percent of the people are working, but in marginal jobs. If they miss one day, that is a big impact. That really surprised us. We didn't understand that."

"We're hooked on helping," Mary Ann Flynn said. "We feel very committed to Reston."

Mary Ann Flynn retired from teaching in 1992. Tom Flynn, after a 30-year Naval career, where he retired from the Judge Advocate General Corp., became a Bar Counsel, which enforces the ethics rules for the legal profession, for four years before retiring for good.

"We're both retired, we have time to do these things and someone has to do it," Tom Flynn said. "We're also very convinced it's a genuine need. It's easy when you're not directly involved to sit back and think someone else will do it, but if you don't, who will?"

When the couple is not doing their community work, they like to travel, do some gardening and enjoy their subscription tickets for the Kennedy Theater.

"What the Flynns do is very personal," Park said. "The Flynns always come in with a smile on their faces and every month without fail bring presents for the children."