That bearded jolly guy in the red and white suit made a surprise visit to students at Riverside Elementary School in the Mount Vernon District of Fairfax County last Friday, and left lots of goodies stuffed into brightly colored backpacks.
As they piled into their classrooms, students in pre-kindergarten through third grade were greeted with 274 red, yellow, green and blue plastic backpacks filled with all sorts of stocking-stuffer type gifts. It was all part of Volunteer Fairfax's "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" project.
"A Visit from Saint Nicholas" is a community event sponsored by Volunteer Fairfax to support critical volunteer programs and to enrich the lives of underprivileged children throughout the county. Volunteer Fairfax is one of 12 volunteer centers nationwide that participate in the project that serves nearly 32,000 children, according to Tonya A. McCreary, director of development, Volunteer Fairfax. More than 2,200 Fairfax County students saw “Saint Nicholas” visit their classroom.
"This is really great. It's fun to see children so surprised when these things just show up out of the blue. It really wouldn't matter what was in the backpacks," said Susan Allen, wife of U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-VA), who served as honorary chair of the project.
"All these things help us to help others. I'm so glad Riverside was chosen as one of the schools. There are so many schools in Fairfax County. Hopefully, there will eventually be more volunteers and more schools," Allen said.
In addition to receiving gifts, children are also taught the value of giving and sharing through teachers and volunteers discussing the legend of St. Nicholas with the children, Riverside principal, Lori Morton, said. "It's a great way to teach kids about the gift of giving," she said.
Volunteers gathered at the school Thursday night to place the bookbags, delivered by members of the county Sheriff's Department, at the students' seats. They also decorated the classrooms with gold streamers and confetti to give them a festive atmosphere.
"When I looked in on those classrooms last night I was mesmerized that people are so kind," Mary Person, assistant principal, said.
All students at Riverside in pre-kindergarten through third grade received a backpack, according to Person.
Other Fairfax County elementary schools chosen to participate in the program were Glen Forest in Falls Church, Dogwood in Reston, and Woods, Mount Eagle, and Hybla Valley, in addition to Riverside, in the Mount Vernon area. Schools were chosen on the basis of their high enrollment in the free and reduced lunch program, according to Volunteer Fairfax.
AS THEY DID AT the other schools, elves busied themselves in the classrooms at Hybla Valley while students participated in events outside their classroom. At 9 a.m., the elves were finished and children were asked to return to their classrooms. Janice Spencer, first-grade teacher waited for her students to return, saying, “That don’t have a clue, this is so nice.”
Soriya Chay was one of the first students to return and was all smiles when she first discovered her blue mylar backpack.
“My favorite color is blue,” she said. Other students could be heard saying, “Do you like red?” and “I got green.” In one class, two boys amiably swapped bags, both ending up with the colors they wanted. Children spent a few minutes opening their bags of goodies before getting back to the day’s events.
Jessica Segal, one of the volunteers, spoke to students in one of the classrooms.
“What happened here?” she asked.
“I got a surprise,” said one student.
When she asked “Why would somebody do this?” an astute student answered, “Because it’s from the heart.”
Segal then went on to ask the children how it felt to give and receive a present — special, happy, excited, proud and shocked.
“Today’s a special day to celebrate giving and sharing. We call it “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” because St. Nick was known for helping people and liked to surprise people” Segal said.
ORIGINATING AT VOLUNTEER Houston in Texas in 1987, the project was offered to Volunteer Centers nationally in 2002. "This is the third year FedEx is donating the delivery of toys, books and backpacks to thousands of at-risk children," McCreary stated in a news release. This is Volunteer Fairfax's second year of participation.
On Nov. 19, 130 volunteers worked three assembly lines stuffing the colorful backpacks. Supplementing those volunteer activities were individuals and corporations that sponsored children, classrooms and schools.
"A Visit From Saint Nicholas" offers the entire community an opportunity to express support and caring for children who might otherwise not experience the holidays. "While we are so fortunate to be in Fairfax County, many residents here struggle to make ends meet," said Jeanne Sanders, executive director, Volunteer Fairfax.
The organization was established 30 years ago "to mobilize people and resources to meet community needs." Volunteer Fairfax is still accepting donations for the program. Sponsorships have various levels, beginning at $25 per child, and can be given in honor of a friend, colleague or loved one.