What can happen to a child growing up in a rough neighborhood and only getting one present on Christmas morning? He can turn into a real live Santa on a mission to make sure hundreds of other children have more than enough presents every Christmas.
It's not a fictional holiday story. It's real. And, that same child is now Master Technician Willie F. Bailey, an 11-year veteran of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department assigned to Station 24, Woodlawn.
His crusade began six years ago when he became aware that their were children along the Route 1 corridor in the Mount Vernon District who would be without gifts at Christmas. He initiated a raffle at Gum Springs and raised enough money to buy gifts for about 40 needy children.
This year there were enough gifts for nearly 1,000 recipients throughout Fairfax County. And, it was not limited to one gift per child. "Now it's something I can't stop doing," he said. "If someone comes to us, and we have the toys, we will give to them no matter where they are."
"The toys and gifts are distributed to community centers, shelters, churches, and schools, in fire trucks and personal vehicles," Bailey explained. "But, I could not do this alone. I have the support of many fellow firefighters and a variety of civic minded organizations and individuals."
SOME OF THE biggest contributors to this effort are Rand Blazer, CEO, Bearing Point Consulting, McLean, formerly KPMG; Safeway at Engleside Plaza; Bank of America in Fairfax; and Brian Abel at Chadwicks in Old Town Alexandria, according to Bailey.
"Last year was the first for Bearing Point. But, after they got thank you letters from the kids, Blazer had all his employees, of which there are about a thousand, contribute a toy," Bailey explained. "I had to rent a 20-foot truck to pick up the gifts, there were so many."
Over the weeks prior to Christmas there are approximately 25 firefighters involved in the process, according to Bailey. "All the toys going to shelters are wrapped. The B Shift at the Woodlawn Station, which is my shift, does most of wrapping," he said.
"But Will is our catalyst," said Lieutenant Mark Stone, department Community Relations, as he stood among the bags of gifts at the Woodlawn Station, wrapped and waiting to be loaded on to vehicles for delivery. "He has so much energy and drive that no one can say no."
Bailey's efforts are supported by the Progressive Firefighters of Fairfax County, Local 2068. It is an employee group serving the interest of firefighters countywide.
THIS YEAR "Santa" Bailey and his workshop helpers were called upon to make a special gift. It occurred on Christmas night.
"We got a call from a 911 supervisor saying that a family with three children, all under age 10, living in a motel along Route 1, had no gifts and were about to be evicted on Christmas night," Bailey related. "Apparently the parents had told the kids that there would be no toys because Santa didn't know where they lived."
As Bailey recalled, "When the 911 operator heard about the possible eviction she was irate. She called the motel manager saying that she was going to alert the media so he would get the worst possible publicity."
That's when Operation Bailey Christmas swung into action. "There was no way we were going to be driving down Route 1 on a call and see this family sitting on the side of the road," he insisted.
"We packed up bags of toys for the kids and collected over $400 Christmas night from firefighters to pay the motel bill for a week. We also got money for food for the family. Fairfax County Social Services got people to donate enough money for the family to stay there for several weeks until a better place could be found," Bailey explained.
SOCIAL SERVICES was aware of the family and knew that the father had been working but was just not able to manage for the holidays, according to Bailey. All their income was used just to survive.
"When we got to the motel with all the toys and gifts we told the kids that Santa had left the toys with us because he didn't know where they were living. It tied right into the parents' story," Bailey said. "It made for a really meaningful Christmas night."
On December 16, the Mount Vernon/Lee Chamber of Commerce honored Bailey by naming him their "Firefighter of The Year." During that ceremony, Battalion Chief John Caussin, noted, "Willie has distinguished himself as a superlative representative of the department in community oriented activities."
Joined that night by his own 11-year-old son, Willie F. Bailey Jr., he characteristically shared the spotlight with all who participated in the annual holiday effort.
"This award is not for me," he stated. "It is in recognition of what we have done."
From that memory of one gift on Christmas morning in his home in the Del Ray section of Alexandria to the satisfaction of bringing joy to nearly 1,000 children, Willie Bailey brings a whole new meaning to "first responder."