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Our Neighbor's Child Brings Holiday Joy

Surely, Kelly Lavin and her plucky group of Our Neighbor's Child (ONC) volunteers must be way up high on Santa's list of nice people. Now in its 12th year, this local grassroots bunch makes the holidays brighter for needy families in the Centreville, Chantilly and Clifton area.

And working hand-in-hand with them is Western Fairfax Christian Ministries. WFCM organizes food-basket deliveries, and ONC provides new toys and clothes.

"We have an incredible group of volunteers who return, year after year," said ONC Executive Director Lavin of Centreville's Hunt Chase community. "I look forward to working with these people at the start of each holiday season. Their outlook and the joy they spread through their selfless giving bring the meaning to my holidays."

Difficult economic times gives their work even more significance each year, as an ever-increasing number of families find themselves in serious financial straits. More and more local people are having a tough time just feeding their children — let alone having any extra money for "frills," such as Christmas gifts.

Indeed, when ONC began in 1992, a handful of Virginia Run residents gathered up enough new toys to provide Christmas gifts for 31 needy children. By 2001, some 75 volunteers from a variety of neighborhoods in Centreville and Chantilly were bringing holiday cheer to about 270 families.

FAST FORWARD to 2003 and the number of volunteers has swelled to 200, but the need's grown, too — dramatically. "By this time last season, we had 240 families on our list," said Lavin. "This year, we've heard from more than 368 families — with more than 1,000 children."

And topping Lavin's wish list are volunteers who speak Spanish and can help Hispanic families communicate their needs. E-mail her at KMLavin@aol.com. (See "How to Help" box for other ways to lend a hand).

The WFCM/ONC Holiday Assistance Hotline opened in September. People requesting toys, clothing and food were screened for eligibility and level of need. School guidance counselors and social workers also made referrals.

Volunteer Pam Ryan matched up food requests with food-basket donors, and computer person MaryAnne Pickett relayed family phone numbers to Kathy Sposa, whose calling team determined each child's gift wishes. Pickett created "wish labels" which local Brownie and Girl Scout troops attached to paper ornaments placed on giving trees in schools, churches and businesses such as the Fair Lakes Wal-Mart — which is hosting an ONC toy drive Saturday, Dec. 6, from 9-6 p.m.

Jacquie Lambertson of Noodles & Noggins toy store in Clifton has a giving tree in her store with ornaments reading, i.e., "Tommy, 7, puzzle." Customers choose an ornament, buy that gift and bring it to the store for ONC, or shop via www.noodlesandnoggins.com.

"It's a tradition I had, growing up in Connecticut, and I wanted to continue it here," said Lambertson. "It's wonderful that there's an organization like this. If it wasn't for ONC, a lot of children would get nothing."

Specific ONC volunteers coordinate specific parts of the holiday project. They call churches and schools, pick up gifts, sort and assemble them, fulfill clothing requests, bake cookies, and package and deliver everything.

SHARON MARIA of Virginia Run contacts churches about the giving trees. Churches participating this time are St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church, St. Andrew's Lutheran, Centreville Baptist, Centreville United Methodist, Centreville Presbyterian, Church of the Epiphany, Clifton Presbyterian's preschool and Shepherd Gate.

"The need this year is so great," she said. "Even though these churches have already committed to more than 1,000 gifts, we'll still have a tremendous amount of ornaments on the giving tree at Wal-Mart."

That's why more churches are needed to help out. "Even if they're doing giving trees for other entities, they could still add our ornaments to their trees without confusion because they're clearly marked," said Maria. "We provide the ornaments, wish labels and pick-up of the donated items, and we need everything by Dec. 7."

This is her second year coordinating the churches and seventh, overall, with ONC. "We're so fortunate here," she said. "And it's a good thing for all our kids to see. Mine help me make the ornaments and put on the labels, and they know they're making a difference. And seeing the simple things these kids are asking for, like a sweatshirt, is a humbling experience."

Clothing coordinator is Tracy McInturff of Sully Estates, with helper Holly Cameron. They say children's winter clothes are needed for newborns through teens. "Some people don't even have shoes without holes in them," said McInturff. "We have some very needy families. And usually, if someone requests a coat, we give them a hat and gloves, too."

For teens, Sposa suggests gift certificates from stores such as Kohl's, Old Navy and Target, "where the kids can go and make their own choices." Clothing donors receive lists of first names, ages, clothing wishes and sizes for a family. Items will then be brought, Dec. 7, to the Sully Station II community center.

"TRACY AND HOLLY'S team of clothing elves brings a huge measure of energy and enthusiasm to the project," said Lavin. "They rely on the community's generosity and are still in need of people willing to 'adopt' a family. But I have faith that we'll be able to meet the need."

Toys may be brought to local churches, Long & Foster, Realtors in Centreville Square or Wal-Mart on Dec. 6. Sposa said gift certificates for CDs from places such as Best Buy or Tower Records make great presents for teens.

"We've also received lots of requests for remote-control cars, Barbies and the Leap Pad educational toy," she said. "There's a remarkable number of families we're trying to serve. It has so far exceeded anything we've ever tried to do before that I just hope we can."

Virginia Run's Lori Gibson and assistant Marty Clarke are responsible for picking up all the donated toys from the churches, schools and businesses. Eight others help them. It's Gibson's fifth year with ONC and, she said, "It's just so rewarding to see people's generosity. It's really fulfilling realizing I'm helping families less fortunate. And it's hands-on; I get to see where the gifts are actually going."

Fondly dubbed "toy-assembly elf" by Lavin, Clarke also has the huge task of putting together hundreds of bikes, trikes, scooters, wagons, etc. Helping him are Westfield High students Ryan Lavin (Kelly's son) and Nick Sposa (Kathy's son).

"I do a little of everything," said Clarke. "For example, we'll buy 20 bikes; they're all in boxes and have to be put together." An ONC volunteer since its inception, he originally became involved because the Lavins were his neighbors. His wife and son helped previously with toy delivery, and daughter Shannon, 17, creates computer maps providing delivery people with directions to the recipients' homes.

"It's just part of our Christmas ritual," he explained. "It wouldn't be the same without it. It's a great feeling to help others, and seeing [the recipients'] tears and laughter keeps me coming back each year."

In charge of toy requests is Pickett, aided by Ginger Katz. "I have tons of requests by teens for portable CD players," said Pickett, of The Ridings. "Older kids want PlayStation2 games, and we'll either provide teens' clothing needs or give them gift certificates." An ONC first-timer, she said, "It's a good cause and I wanted to do my part."

Hunt Chase's Louise Trimble screened families, found out their gift needs and then assigned them to other volunteers to fulfill. She'll also select some of the needed clothes and toys.

"WE HAVE several grandparents who are raising children and not working," she said. "We want to insure they have just as nice a Christmas as the family next door. It's really a cool thing to be part of, knowing there are so many people within the community willing to give their time to help others."

Before getting involved in ONC, Trimble said she was "completely oblivious" to the number of needy families in Centreville and Chantilly. "Our kids are going to school and [playing] sports with these kids, but it's something they don't talk about," she said. "So it's nice to be able to help them out silently."

Schools are helping, too. Stone Middle's collecting hats and mittens, Virginia Run Elementary already did and Poplar Tree Elementary's holding a hat/mitten drive, too. Centreville High's SGA runs a toiletries drive and bakes and packages cookies, as does Westfield High's SGA.

"Each school will bake 3,000 cookies," said cookie coordinator Pam Ryan. But with so many more mouths to feed, this time, lots of volunteers are still needed to help them.

"While we are blessed to have the high-school students doing the majority of the baking and packaging, we are still in need of community bakers to help fill this year's tremendous demand," she said. "Simply bake your treats, put them on paper plates and deliver them to one of two locations on Thursday, Dec. 11."

BRING THEM to the Virginia Run Community Center, between 10 a.m.-4 p.m., or the Clifton Presbyterian Church manse, between 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Cookies will then be picked up, boxes and delivered, Dec. 14.

Bringing together clothing and toy donations and readying them for packaging is the gift-inventory team headed by Jean Novak of Virginia Run. Lavin's husband Chris stores some of the donations and then delivers them to a site where volunteers unload his truck and sort out the gifts into categories such as preschool toys, books, games, toys for boys or girls, etc.

"[That way], when our volunteers — who custom shop for the individual families — come here, they can easily find what they need," said Novak. "Basically, we set up a mini store. My kids and their friends always help, and it's nice for them to do."

And if a child's wish wasn't among the gifts collected, ONC's shopping team led by Regina O'Shaughnessy uses donated funds to purchase that item. Added Trimble: "Kelly [Lavin] will even physically go to a store, Christmas Eve, to meet any unfilled needs so no child is disappointed."

TAX-DEDUCTIBLE, monetary contributions may be sent to Our Neighbor's Child at P.O. Box 276, Centreville, VA 20120, or e-mail Karen Moore at KK1MO@aol.com. "Every penny donated to ONC is used to purchase toys or clothing," said Lavin. "ONC volunteers are not paid, and any supplies used for the project generally come out-of-pocket."

Like the others, Novak is happy to lend a hand. "I feel like I'm so blessed," she explained. "The holidays are such a magical time of year, and it would be a shame if some child missed that magic because of their family's limited financial situation."

Kay Blunt heads the delivery operation. "Callers schedule delivery of the toys, and volunteers come to us to pick up the bags to deliver. About 80 people help; most deliver to two or three families — and others keep coming back, all day long, until everything is gone."

It's the seventh year that she and her husband Ed, plus Jill and Jeff Carey, have done it. The big day, this time, is Sunday, Dec. 14. Toughest part, said Blunt, is loading and unloading all the bags. "But once delivery day comes, it's pretty organized and it goes pretty fast," she said. "And it really is rewarding to see the looks on people's faces when they get their bag of goodies."