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Firefighters Rescue Christmas — Again

An expanding partnership makes Christmas brighter.

<bt>More than 3,000 needy children throughout Fairfax County will have Christmas gifts this year as the result of one firefighter's tenacity over the past seven years. What started as small donations from his fellow firefighters now encompasses a partnership of corporations, local businesses, schools and individuals.

Tuesday morning the engine bays at Woodlawn Fire Station #24 in Mount Vernon District were awash in gifts ranging from small stuffed animals to a line of boys and girls mountain bikes in all colors and sizes. At 12:30 p.m. distribution of those gifts began to representatives of schools and organizations as well as individual family members to brighten the holidays for Fairfax County children.

Spearheading this seventh Annual Firefighters' Holiday Rescuers Toy Drive, as he has since initiating it, was Master Technician Will Bailey, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. It is now a joint effort between the county fire department, the Progressive Firefighters of Fairfax County, Inc., and the Fairfax County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics, IAFF Local 2068.

"We have grown so much I can hardly believe it. It's really a joint effort by us and all our supporting partners. And, all these firefighters do this on their own time," Bailey said.

COUPLED WITH the firefighters are three primary corporate sponsors, BaringPoint, Inc., Gaylord Hotels, and Safeway, Inc. There are also a host of local business sponsors such as restaurateurs, schools, Realtors, and other businesses, such as Storage USA in Alexandria and Olympic Gym in Springfield.

"Our newest large sponsor this year is Gaylord Hotels who will be building a new property in Prince Georges County, Md. They were suggested by some of the restaurant owners in Old Town Alexandria," Bailey said.

"We had the firefighters come in and tell us about this project and what they do. That convinced us to donate money for the purchase of gifts. But, after witnessing this event this morning, our involvement will hopefully become a tradition," Shelli Vasser, director of national accounts, Gaylord Hotels, said.

Bruce Witucki of Union Street Public House in Old Town Alexandria has participated for a number of years. "This is definitely a team effort by the bartenders in Old Town and our customers. We are very happy that both Budweiser and Gaylord came on board this year," he said.

Another long-time Bailey supporter is Brian Abel of Chadwicks in Old Town Alexandria. "I've been doing this about five years ever since Willie came and talked to us. Many of our customers donate money as well as Bruce and the rest of us. Then we (Witucki and Abel) go out and buy the gifts. This year it was the bikes," Abel said

"It's a lot of work. But, after the first year we got thank you cards from the kids and that makes it all worthwhile," Abel said.

On his second tour of duty with the toy drive is J.B. Samuel of Stardust Restaurant in Old Town Alexandria. "Although this is only year two for us, it's just the beginning of many. I'm not walking away from this as long as I'm in the area," he said.

One of those collecting gifts to be distributed to needy families was Bucknell Elementary School reading teacher Lisa Kelly. "I've been helping Willie for three years and it's amazing to see how much it has grown in both gifts and participation. There are so many people from throughout the community now involved," Kelly said.

That was evident by the presence of two Redskins cheerleaders, Kimberly Hughes and Maki Nakayama. "This is a very worthwhile event and we are very happy to be a part of it," they said.

ANOTHER SCHOOL that has supported Bailey's efforts over the years is Saint Stephens-Saint Agnes in Alexandria. "They have supported us since the beginning," Bailey said to a crowd of recipients assembled at the station waiting their turn to select gifts for those on their lists.

Joining in the Fairfax County effort were firefighters from Alexandria Fire Department which conduct their own toy drive and distribution. "We work together in this effort and I'm glad to help out down here. A lot of the suppliers for this are from Alexandria," Captain Thurston McClain said.

"If I can build up the kind of support that Willie has maybe we can increase our efforts as well," he said. A similar event will take place this Saturday at the Mark Center Hilton under the aegis of the Alexandria Black Professional Firefighters.

Those picking up gifts for distribution to needy families were representatives of schools, recreation centers, shelters, churches as well as individual social workers and family members.

"We have been working with county public schools and the Department of Family Services to reach a record number of children this year. Both have been very helpful in getting us the names of needy families. This toy effort is probably second only to Toys for Tots," said Lt. Mark Stone, community relations, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.

"All these people here today will give the gifts to the families and the families then will give them to the kids. All the people that support us are a real blessing," Bailey said.

The real blessing, according to Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department Chief Michael P. Neuhard, is Will Bailey. "He is a real resource for us. Individuals like Willie take our community involvement to a whole new level. I just wish we were able to be present on the other end and see the kids' faces when they get the gifts," he said.

"This is also a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the power of partnerships. When you combine the firefighters, businesses and the people who know the needy, everybody wins. And that is what partnering is all about," Neuhard said.