It's almost showtime for Our Neighbor's Child (ONC). Sunday afternoon, this grassroots group of local moms, dads and teens will drive throughout Centreville, Chantilly and Clifton, delivering Christmas gifts to needy families.
Under Executive Director Kelly Lavin of Centreville's Hunt Chase community, the nonprofit organization is now in its 13th year. And for Christmas 2004, it's bringing new toys and clothing to 525 families — including 1,500 children.
"EVERYONE INVOLVED with Kelly is tremendously loyal and believes in the mission of the organization," said cookie coordinator Pam Ryan of Clifton. "And when you see the numbers growing each year, you're aware of the tremendous need. When I first began [four years ago], we had about 225 families, and now that number has more than doubled."
Clothing coordinator Tracy McInturff agrees. "We're certainly surpassing last year [in the number of families needing clothing]," she said. "There's a big gap between those who have a lot and those who don't have anything. So many families just request warm winter clothes — and a lot of shoes. The families are grateful for anything."
She often worries that she won't receive enough donations to take care of everyone. But then, said McInturff, "I also feel like we have a guardian angel watching over us because we always end up getting what we need."
Ryan said that helping ONC is also a way to introduce their own children to mission work, right in their own backyards. "I tell my kids that not everyone is as fortunate as we are to have a roof over their heads," she said. "And I believe that when you start kids helping out when they're young, it can carry over into adulthood."
Packaging coordinator Kathy Sposa of Sully Estates has been with ONC for 12 years. In September, she and six other volunteers recruit people who'll call each of the families requesting help. They'll obtain the names, ages and genders of all their children and find out their specific needs.
"Until we have that information they can't do the giving trees' ornaments or the buying," she explained. "Nothing starts 'til we start. The first week of November, we got our first family — and they're still coming in."
THE VOLUNTEERS try to call the families before Thanksgiving so they can enter the information into the computer and put it onto the ornament tags on the giving trees. "We got 375 families before Thanksgiving and had 1,200 ornament tags ready to go," said Sposa, Monday night. "We're at 510 families right now, and we fully expect 525."
They've noted that they're receiving requests, this year, for "significantly older kids" than in previous years. But she said it's difficult fulfilling their needs because their gifts are so expensive. "For example, what do you get a 16-year-old boy you don't know?" asked Sposa. "Little kids are happy with two or three silly, little gifts, but a 15-year-old wants to have Christmas, too."
And although teens like clothes, adults don't know their specific tastes or the styles they'd like. So, she said, gift cards to stores such as K mart, Target and Wal-Mart would be great. And now and then, something neat happens.
"One lady with seven children wanted seven bikes," said Sposa. "I went, 'Whoa, that's a lot for one family.' Then I realized they had zero money and no car — and they needed the bikes for transportation."
She called McInturff, her friend and neighbor, and told her. An hour later, Chantilly Fire Station 15 told ONC it had seven firefighters who wanted to "adopt" seven children for Christmas. An hour after that, McInturff received a call from a man who had 10 bikes to donate. So the family needing bikes will be getting five — figuring that the two youngest children can share with their siblings.
"Often, we never know where the things we need are going to come from," said Sposa. "And then little miracles occur." Another person, she said, is on maternity leave from work, but wanted to help, so she's collecting gift cards for ONC.
"It takes so many, little things to make this work, but they happen," said Sposa. "Like a random person will say, 'I read about Our Neighbor's Child in the paper; here's $500' — just when we needed the cash. This community has just responded incredibly. I am proud of living in this area."
THE GIFTS were packaged on Tuesday, and she kept a list of items still needed but not yet received, and then other volunteers shopped for them. "We're on cell phones all day," she said. "A team stays at the warehouse and a team stays at the stores."
The hardest part of her job is sometimes not being able to reach a recipient family. "I get a name and address, but they have no phone," said Sposa. "Last year, the last call we got was about a mom and two kids living in a car."
She said the best part is "working with such great people. It's my favorite part of Christmas. I love working with my friends, and I feel good knowing we made somebody's Christmas special."
Lori Gibson dispatches volunteers to pick up the toy and clothing contributions from the community. "I make phone calls to all the local churches, schools and businesses with giving trees to see when they'll be finished collecting their gifts," she said. She then arranges dates and times when she and seven helpers will come by. Said Gibson: "It takes a good two weeks to pick it all up."
They bring everything to the warehouse and help sort it according to gender and specific families. Then on Tuesday, some 25 people worked from 8 a.m. until early evening putting it all into particular families' gift bags.
"I love looking at all the toys we're hauling in," said Gibson. "And it amazes me how generous people are in this community. My favorite gift was a big, stuffed Elmo. One lady was looking for 'anything Elmo' to fulfill a gift request for a boy, 3, and I was able to give it to her."
Gibson volunteers with ONC so she can give back. "Last summer, I had a brain aneurysm and was very sick," she explained. "I was on life support and in a coma, so I'm lucky to be alive. Now I really want to help — I believe I'm here for a purpose. I'm blessed, and I want others to be blessed, too."
Delivery coordinator Kay Blunt has helped ONC for nearly eight years. It's her job to get 150 people to come to ONC's warehouse this Sunday, get the presents and deliver them to every family.
"Each person delivers to two or three families," she said. "I get teen-agers to make the maps to follow. And my partner in this, Jill Carey, groups them by street so they can deliver to three addresses on the same street."
LOADING UP the vehicles is no easy task, but more than a dozen teens — mostly from Westfield High — will help. It takes lots of people to pull all the bags going to each family. Some even receive four or five bags, depending on how many children are in the family and what they want.
"They deliver them to the families, and they all come back and get more, until the last bags are gone," said Blunt. "I have some really dedicated volunteers." She also checks things. "I have a master list to make sure the volunteers have everything that's going to each, particular family before they go out the door," she said.
She'll make sure that, for example, family No. 255 gets the specific three bags of clothes and two bags of toys that it's supposed to get. "Eight or nine parent volunteers also help me check," she said. "Some dole out who gets what family numbers to deliver and then help pull the bags for them."
With an ever-increasing number of families receiving gifts via ONC each year, she needs more and more volunteers to deliver them — but they can be hard to come by. "It's Christmastime, people are busy or going away," said Blunt. "And it's a lot to ask during the holidays."
But when it's all over, she's pleased "knowing that these kids are going to have a brighter Christmas and that we got everything out and on time." Delivery people are still needed for this Sunday, from 1-4 p.m. To volunteer, e-mail Blunt by Saturday night at email@example.com.
Sue and Marty Clarke and their children Shannon, 18, and Ryan, 16, have been with ONC from the beginning. "My family and I started as people delivering gifts," said Marty. "It was part of our Christmas tradition, and we still do it — especially last-minute deliveries."
He also heads the bike-assembly team. Children receive new bicycles but, since stores charge to assemble them, Clarke volunteered. Helping him, besides Ryan, are adults Jack McAleese — "My main elf," said Clarke — and Steve Vagnerini, plus siblings Bohdan and Michael Dmytrewycz.
This week, they'll assemble 35 bikes. "We put on the tires, handlebars, seats and reflectors, blow up the tires and make sure everything's safe and ready to go," said Clarke. They also assemble things such as wagons, tricycles and toy kitchens. Said Clarke: "Anything needing a tool or wrench, we put together."
Meanwhile, Shannon will provide printed directions for the delivery squad. Participating in ONC, said Clarke, teaches teens humility and understanding. "We love what we do, and it's for a good cause," he said. "Once you do it and see the look on the families' faces as they receive their gifts, you'll always come back. It makes all our time and effort worthwhile."