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Santa to 525 Families

Our Neighbor's Child needs holiday helpers.

When it comes to Christmas, Santa's elves don't have anything on Our Neighbor's Child (ONC) and the 200 volunteers that comprise its heart and soul.

This nonprofit organization, now in its 13th year, solicits, collects, sorts, bags and delivers new toys and clothing to needy families in the Centreville, Clifton and Chantilly area.

These are the ones struggling to make ends meet in one of the most affluent counties in the U.S. — the ones unable to share in the good life that so many in Fairfax County enjoy. For these parents — whose main concerns are food, clothing and paying the bills — an expensive holiday like Christmas is more than their budgets can bear.

That's where ONC comes in. Executive Director Kelly Lavin of Centreville's Hunt Chase community expects her group to provide clothes and toys to at least 525 families, including 1,500 children. And, she said, the need is growing.

"We got 150 more families [to help] since last week," said Lavin. "We have over 500 families now." ONC only provides clothing for the children but, with the rising number of families requesting help, it can't do it alone.

"The biggest need we have right now is for people to 'adopt' families for clothing needs," she said. To do so, e-mail ONC's clothing coordinator, Tracy McInturff, at gmfamily1@aol.com.

As for the toy drive, playing a big part is Wal-Mart in the Fair Lakes Shopping Center. This Saturday, Dec. 4, customers may purchase toys for children whose names are on the giving tree inside the store. Then, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., they can take these gifts outside and drop them into the boxes that Cub Scouts and Brownies will be manning that day at Wal-Mart's entrance.

IN CHARGE of it all is Virginia Run's Kathleen Esposito, who's coordinated the various troops that'll work at the Wal-Mart toy drive. From 9-10 a.m., Cub Scout Pack 1682 will man the drop boxes; 10 a.m.-noon, Brownie Troop 3327; noon-2 p.m., Cub Scout Pack 1684; 2-3 p.m., Brownie Troop 2224; 3-4 p.m., Brownie Troop 3306; and 4-5 p.m., two Stone Middle School eighth-graders garnering community-service hours will help.

In addition, a choir from Virginia Run Elementary will perform holiday songs outside the store, around 10:45 a.m. Esposito has been the Wal-Mart toy-drive coordinator for two years, but has been involved in it with the Cub Scouts for five years. And she's helped ONC with packaging and delivery of the gifts for seven years now.

"I think it's important for children to get out there and learn that there are children less privileged than they are and to get involved in helping them," she explained. "Even though it's usually freezing out there all day, after these toy drives, it always makes me feel good inside."

And working at the Wal-Mart drive often proves eye-opening. Said Esposito: "It really amazes the kids to see what people give, and it's really encouraging to see how generous they are." She said the most difficult part of her job is transporting the toys afterward to ONC's storage facility. But, she added, participating in it "gets you in the spirit of Christmas."

Many local churches also have giving trees adorned with "ornaments" containing a child's name, age and Christmas-gift wish. Residents choose an ornament, purchase the gift and give it to ONC to distribute. In addition, said Lavin, "Sully Station Children's Center has been phenomenal, every year. It has a giving tree up in the center, already."

Then, after the toys have been donated and collected, Virginia Run's Jean Novak picks up the baton for ONC. She's in charge of unloading truckfuls of toys and sorting them into categories.

"That way, when the toy-packagers are looking for, for example, a Barbie doll that a child requested, they can look in the pile where the dolls are," she said. "We set it up like a store — boys' toys, arts and crafts, teen stuff, etc. — on tables, to make it easier for those putting together the packages for the families."

BUT NOVAK desperately needs more helping hands to handle the immense number of toys that have to be unloaded and sorted. She and as many volunteers as she can find will be doing this on Sunday, Dec. 12, from 1 p.m. on, at the Albemarle Point Business Park in Chantilly.

It's off Lee Road and behind the new shopping center with the Costco and Target stores in it. To volunteer and for more information, call Novak at 703-830-0954 or e-mail her at johnnovak0954@msn.com.

"This would be a great opportunity for teens needing volunteer hours," she said. "We'd like people to work for two hours or longer, but we're happy to have them help for any period of time they can."

Novak, herself, has been one of ONC's valuable volunteers for six years. "I was new to the area and saw a need to help, so I called and volunteered to help unload the truck and sort the toys," she explained. "They later asked if I wanted a bigger role, coordinating it."

So what keeps her doing it, each holiday season? "It's very worthwhile to be able to help those less fortunate," she said. "And usually, it's the same students that come back and help, year after year." Besides, she added, she really doesn't mind, because "you get back so much more than you give."

There are also other ways that area residents can help ONC in its monumental task to make the holidays brighter for a whole lot of people in the local area. One way is by showing up on Tuesday, Dec. 14, to help the volunteers bag all the food and clothing items for each specific family.

Even an hour or two or help would be extremely appreciated and is sorely needed. To volunteer, and for location information, e-mail ONC's Kathy Sposa at sposafamily@aol.com.

And when donating gift items, Novak reminds people not to forget older children. "The kids that really miss out are the teen-agers, because most people think of small children when buying gifts," she said. "Gift certificates [to stores teens frequent, such as Old Navy, Tower Records and Best Buy], CDs and Walkmans would be wonderful."

After Thanksgiving and through mid-December, residents may bring donations to Long & Foster, Realtors, off Route 28, or to the Sully Station Children's Center at Sully Park and Stone Creek drives in Centreville. Said Lavin: "We hope to deliver everything to the families by Dec. 19."

For more information about drop-off sites, e-mail her at KMLAVIN@aol.com. In addition, tax-deductible, monetary contributions may be sent to Our Neighbor's Child at P.O. Box 276, Centreville, VA 20120.