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A Tree Full of Angels

If Christmas is truly for children, The Salvation Army's "Angel Tree" program, which allows community members to provide holiday gifts to needy children, is a way to prove that.

Starting in Lynchburg, Va., in 1979, the program spread across America bringing toys and warm winter clothing to millions of children. The first trees came to Alexandria in 1986.

Last Saturday morning in Springfield Mall, in conjunction with the Salvation Army's annual "Holiday Kettle" program, the local Angel Tree effort began its 25th year. Other Angel Trees are located at BJ's on Duke Street across from Landmark Mall and at WalMart on Route 1 in the Mount Vernon/Lee districts of Fairfax County.

"This [Springfield Mall] tree provides for children and families in Alexandria and southeastern Fairfax County," said Helen Dell, volunteer Angel Tree coordinator since 1993. She has been a volunteer for the project since 1991.

"On each Angel Tree are cards with a code number. This identifies a child and family that are in need of a specified gift and other items," she said.

"Parents must come to The Salvation Army to give us all the necessary information. It's basically an interview process, one element of which is verification of income," Dell said.

THE PROGRAM is overseen by approximately 128 volunteers each year. Last Saturday Dell was being assisted by volunteers Gerri Hogan, Lillian Fennell and Vanessa Greene from Russell Temple in Old Town Alexandria. "We have been assisted by volunteers from many churches and organizations throughout the area over the years," Dell said.

"This is our missionary responsibility from Russell Temple. It makes me feel particularly good to give something back to the less fortunate," Greene said. Of this group, Hogan, who started in 1995, had been volunteering the longest. The volunteers and guests were joined by a brass band ensemble from the Alexandria Corps.

The program begins with donors, who come to the tree, view the various requests stated on cards, select one, and agree to purchase that gift for that "adopted" child. They get the bottom half of the card and the top is attached to the tree. When the gift arrives, the child's family is notified by the code number.

In addition to the specified gift, the family receives either a food box or food certificates equal to a meal for the family. Each child also receives a filled stocking along with their gift, according to Dell.

"We also have many people who do not adopt a particular child but just drop off gifts for us to distribute. Right now our garage is full of gifts just waiting for The Salvation Army to come and pick them up. But every gift must be new," she said.

THIS YEAR, The Salvation Army's Alexandria Corps has 2,000 children and 900 families for whom they are collecting gifts. "This program is especially good for the children. If it weren't for this program, many children would receive nothing at Christmas," said John Dell, Helen's husband, who also volunteers for Angel Tree.

"Donors are not limited to buying just what is on the card. They can buy extra items. What ever they feel they can do is appreciated," Helen Dell said.

Ninety-five percent of volunteers for the local Angel Tree program come from the Alexandria and Mount Vernon areas, according to Dell. Most are members of various civic associations and churches. However, there are "a lot of individual volunteers."

At the close of each day, staff takes the gifts to the distribution center. There, with the assistance of approximately 15 volunteers, Betty Waites and Frances Augustine, who head the Social Services Department, repack the gifts.

"While it's impossible to mention all who have done so much, I'd be remiss not to remember Rachel Bailey and Jane Earle. They have been with us since the start of the program and have contributed over 1,400 hours to the tree. At 92, Mrs. Bailey is still active with her daughter and son-in-law at the Fairfax Salvation Army," Dell said.

"Those who adopt an angel this season can feel good about helping an underprivileged child this season," said Major Suzanne Barrington, The Salvation Army, Alexandria Corps.