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Warm Hearts Help Our Neighbor's Child

Saturday's chilly weather was no match for the warm hearts of the Scouts and Brownies who manned the toy-donation boxes for Our Neighbor's Child outside the Fair Lakes Wal-Mart. Nor could it dim the generous spirit of the local community.

"Between 9-11 a.m., alone, we got two boxfuls of toys," said Kathleen Esposito, who coordinated the Wal-Mart toy drive for the all-volunteer group. Added ONC executive director Kelly Lavin: "We're very pleased and excited about the turnout and the response from people."

The children handed out lists of toys requested by local needy families, as customers entered the store. Then those who wished to help out took a paper ornament off the "giving tree" inside the store, purchased the item listed on it for a particular child and deposited the tag and toy together inside one of the donation boxes.

EACH YEAR, ONC collects, packages and delivers new toys and clothes to families struggling to make ends meet in the Centreville, Chantilly and Clifton area. The group expects to bring holiday joy this season to some 525 families — including 1,500 children.

And just when the volunteers think they have a handle on things, in come more requests for help. "One day, last week, the help hotline actually had no messages on it," said Lavin. "Then a middle school called and gave us 11 more families."

But that doesn't daunt the moms and dads of ONC — they just dig in and deal with it. And each volunteer plays a valuable role in the success of the whole. For example, Virginia Run's Karen Moore has been ONC's treasurer since the late 1990s.

"I knew Kelly and I thought it was a great organization to get involved with," she said. "I was treasurer for Virginia Run's swim team and I did auditing for a past employer."

Just before Thanksgiving, Moore sent out about 60 letters to potential donors and, after the holidays, she'll write them again to thank them and provide tax information. She also checks the mail each day and then deposits the monetary donations received into ONC's bank account — all of which is spent on the families receiving help.

Then during November, she and ONC lead shopper Regina O'Shaughnessy purchased items for teen-agers, such as gift certificates, Walkmans, boomboxes and makeup that they knew they were going to need. "We also bought the hot toys we knew are going to be in demand," said Moore.

They included Dancing Elmos, Barbie Princess dolls, Ms. Pacman TV games and Bratz Tokyo A-Go-Go dolls. "Every year, we need tons of CDs and CD players, so we got them, too," said O'Shaughnessy. "We also bought bath items, makeup and cologne."

Then, as the days to package everything draw closer, Moore gives money to O'Shaughnessy and her group of seven shoppers who'll go out and buy any clothes, toys, etc., still needed for the families. They'll hit the stores Dec. 14, after all the toys donated have been unloaded and as the packaging is being done.

"IT'S JUST awesome to know that these families are getting things they want and that kids are having a Christmas they might otherwise not have," said Moore. "It makes you really feel good."

O'Shaughnessy's been an ONC volunteer for several years, and she says the toughest part of her job is trying to get the exact present each child wants — although not actually knowing the child. It can also be difficult putting together nice packages for teen-agers.

So, she said, gift certificates to places teens shop, such as Best Buy, Target, Old Navy and The Icing, would be especially welcome contributions from the community. She could also use more volunteers to help with the shopping on Dec. 14, starting at noon, for whatever time they can spare. To volunteer, e-mail her at jrke@aol.com.

Meanwhile, as ONC's clothing coordinator, Sully Station's Tracy McInturff also has a huge job to do. In her fourth year with the group, she does it "to be able to help others and give back." And as the volunteers' children are getting older, they, too, are pitching in — helping with clothing dropoffs and the loading and unloading of donated items.

"Instead of just seeing mom busy working on [ONC] with a notebook and the telephone, they really see, [firsthand], how many families need help — and this is just in our area," she said. "But the outpouring of help from the community every year makes it worthwhile to see how much people want to help other people."

At Christmastime, she said, there are needs and wants. "The toys are the wants — but the clothes are desperately needed," said McInturff. "A lot of these families are incredibly low-income and, if they need a coat, they can't buy one. Or they might only have one pair of shoes."

ONC receives clothing requests in specific sizes and genders for each family. To help fulfill them, e-mail McInturff at gmfamily1@aol.com. She'll respond with all the pertinent information for "bagging, tagging and dropping off" these items.

"People can still call in and request help 'til Christmas Eve, so I have a data base of families who want to assist families," she explained. "As I get the family-needs information, I'll e-mail it to the donors."

Families will also receive cookies and, said ONC cookie coordinator Pam Ryan, of Clifton's Cedar Knolls community, "We'd love to have more cookie bakers. We'll take any kind of cookies in any amount. They don't need any special packaging — paper plates, whatever, work fine."

ONC gives a 1-pound box containing about two dozen cookies to every family. "And with 525 families, we need lots of cookies," said Ryan. "Colorful cookies are especially appreciated." Residents baking cookies may drop them off, Thursday, Dec. 16, between 10 a.m.-4 p.m., at the Virginia Run Community Center on Wetherburn Court, off Route 29 and Pleasant Valley Road in Centreville.

"It's something people can do with their families, and everyone in the family can participate," said Ryan. Also baking cookies for ONC are students at Centreville and Westfield high schools. Said Ryan: "They've been very supportive — we couldn't do it without all their help." (Centreville High collects toiletries for the families, too).

It's her fifth year as cookie coordinator — finding packaging materials, boxes and bows, making labels and coordinating the schools' baking and pickups. "But it's a fun thing," she said. And this year, Hunt Chase's Barbara Malm is helping her.

"She'll make sure each delivery team has cookies for each family before they go out the door," said Ryan. "And instead of all the cookies being in my dining room, they'll be in hers. She and her daughters, Jill and Jen, will check that each box is full, the cookies aren't broken and each family has a nice assortment — including colorful ones."

<sh>To Help

<bt>* ONC's Jean Novak needs help unloading and sorting an immense number of toys, this Sunday, Dec. 12, from 1 p.m. on, at Albemarle Point Business Park, off Lee Road in Chantilly. To volunteer and for more info., call Novak at 703-830-0954 or e-mail johnnovak0954@msn.com.

* Volunteers need help Tuesday, Dec. 14, to bag all the food and clothing for each family. Even an hour or two would be appreciated. To volunteer, and for location info., e-mail ONC's Kathy Sposa at sposafamily@aol.com.

* Through mid-December, residents may bring donations to Long & Foster, Realtors, off Route 28, or the Sully Station Children's Center at Sully Park Drive in Centreville.

* Tax-deductible, monetary contributions may be sent to Our Neighbor's Child at P.O. Box 276, Centreville, VA 20120.