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Santa's Sleigh Is A Big Red Truck

Santa's Mission has been growing by leaps and bounds every year. And that's not from roof top to roof top. It's from individual child to homeless shelter to hospital pediatric ward to women's shelter.

These Santas don't arrive in a sleigh powered by those eight hoofed creatures of the frozen North. But they do have an affiliation with chimneys.

These St. Nicks ride in big red vehicles with lights flashing and sirens wailing. These are the men and women of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and the Alexandria Fire Department who fulfill holiday wishes for children and adults alike.

By far the largest undertaking is that of the Fairfax County firefighters under the initiative and direction of Master Technician Willie F. Bailey, based at Woodlawn Station, Number 24, on Lukens Lane. This year they will provide more than 1,500 toys and gifts county-wide.

Last Tuesday morning the engine bays of the Woodlawn station began filling with gifts from donors throughout the area. In addition to the firefighters themselves, the gifts came from businesses and individuals in Alexandria and along the Route 1 corridor.

"The gifts are delivered to community centers, shelters, churches, and schools in fire trucks and personal vehicles," Bailey explained. "And this year we have counselors from various schools in the Mount Vernon area coming to pick up gifts for needy children in their schools."

BAILEY STARTED the program approximately seven years ago in conjunction with the Progressive Firefighters of Fairfax County, Local 2068. Then the department decided to join in. It has grown from 40 to 50 recipients to this year's total of gifts for more than 1,500, according to Bailey.

"I could not do this alone," Bailey admitted. "I have the support of not only my fellow firefighters but also many individuals and businesses throughout the Alexandria/Mount Vernon community."

Five of those supporters were present at the station that day unloading gifts. They represented three Old Town restaurants and St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School. For the latter, it was their first involvement with Bailey's holiday crusade.

"Willie came to the school several weeks ago and spoke about the program. This got our students really involved because they knew their donations would be going to children right in the area," said

Robert Weiman of St. Stephen's.

"The students collected toys and others contributed more than 17 boxes filled with both toys and clothing for both children and adults," he said. "When he told the students that as a firefighter he has been in many homes where children have no toys, it really made an impression."

Bailey can personally affiliate with that plight. Growing up in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, he holds the memory of receiving only one gift on Christmas morning.

As for business involvement, three Old Town restaurants — Chadwicks, Union Street Public House, and Stardust — are big supporters. "Willie came to me about four years ago to help out," said Brian Abel of Chadwicks. "When we got letters back from the kids thanking us, that solidified our support. Now we have a lot of our regular customers that also contribute," he said.

Clark Unger, Union Street Public House, helps with the shopping. "We've done the shopping over the past three weeks. We just go to Wal-Mart and empty the shelves," he said .

Bruce Witucki, also from Union Street, has been participating for about four years."We get some interesting looks and comments when we get to check-out," he confided. "One is 'you guys really like toys, don't you?'"

THIS WAS A first time experience for J.B. Samuel of Stardust Restaurant. "Now I'm addicted. Our customers brought in a couple of hundred toys. There were days I'd come to work and have to fill the van before I could start anything else."

Corporate contributions also pour in from Bearing Point, Inc., of McLean, Safeway, Inc., at Engleside Plaza, and Promax Management, Inc., according to Bailey. They have been involved for several years.

This year counselors came from area schools to pick up gifts for children and families on their list. Elementary schools getting gifts were Bucknell, Woodley Hills, Hybla Valley, Mount Eagle, Mount Vernon Woods, Washington Mills and Woodlawn.

"We are going to distribute these gifts to needy families in our school. Then they can decide how to present them to their children," said Shannon Jones, counselor, Bucknell Elementary School, "The Administration came up with the list based on need."

In addition to distributing to the schools, gifts will also go to Kennedy Shelter, Rising Home United Methodist Mission Church, Carpenter Shelter, Mund Luck, My Friends Place, and the community centers at Chantilly Mews, Gum Springs, and Reston Interfaith.

"We wrap the shelter gifts and deliver them," Bailey said. "One of our firefighters lives in Reston and we help him get the gifts out there."

IN ALEXANDRIA, Santa's express is directed by Firefighter Mike Chandler, Station 206, Seminary Road. "This all started with now retired Captain Paul Scaffido approximately 10 to 15 years ago," Chandler recalled.

"He suggested that instead of the firefighters exchanging gifts among ourselves, we pool our resources and buy gifts for the kids confined to the Alexandria Hospital pediatric ward over the holidays," he said.

"It has grown to collecting and distributing gifts to not only those kids but also to homeless shelters and the Women's Shelter,"

Chandler added. "We usually provide gifts for about 35 kids at the hospital and then a lot more to the shelters."

This year gifts are being sent to a child burn victim recuperating in a Boston, Mass., hospital. "She was burned in an apartment fire here this year and we took this opportunity to collect some toys for her this season which will be sent to her in Boston," Chandler said.

Gifts going to the Pediatric Ward are delivered by Santa arriving in an Alexandria fire truck. "The kids can either come out to the tree in the ward lobby area to get their gifts or, if they can't leave their bed, Santa brings the gifts to them personally," Chandler explained. That took place on Dec. 17.

Usually about six members of the department go to the hospital for the presentation — a captain, three firefighters, and two paramedics, according to Chandler. "This whole program has been made possible by the generosity of the people in the fire department and throughout the city," he said.

"There is one Realtor who is particularly generous. Last year that donation amounted to nine bags full of coats which accounted for nearly 100 garments," Chandler emphasized. "We split that up between the various homeless shelters and the Women's Shelter." Gifts are also donated to the ALIVE! Day Care Center.

"This year we raised between $1,200 and $1,300 to buy gifts. That's in addition to the donations of toys and gifts from within the department and community," Chandler said.

THE SHOPPING SPREE took place on the morning of Dec. 11, in KB Toys at Landmark Shopping Center. "The manager lets us come in early before the store opens and buy the toys we need. He also gives us a good discount.

"The shopping is done by four firefighters and two paramedics and takes about an hour and a half," Chandler said. All the personnel doing the shopping, who filled about nine large bags with goodies, are from Station 206, Chandler added.

Complimenting this effort, the Black Fire Service Professionals of Alexandria, Inc., along with Captain Thurston McClain, hosted its annual Christmas Party for needy children on Dec. 20, at the Hilton Mark Center. The age group encompassed those from toddler to 12.

The more than 100 children who attend this affair each year come from Alexandria's recreation centers and public housing. In addition to a luncheon of hot dogs, french fries, and Christmas cookies, each child receives a Christmas gift of either money or a toy, according to McClain.

At this time of the year "First Responder" takes on a whole new meaning. But, the mission remains the same — bring assistance, comfort, and a sense of security to those in need — physically and emotionally.