After a cup of coffee at the Lake Anne Coffee House, Ellen Graves took a stroll through Lake Anne Plaza the other day. Greeting everyone she passed, most of whom she knew by name, she was quickly joined by a handful of Reston residents who congratulated her on being named a recipient of the 2004 Best of Reston awards.
"They should have given you that award 20 years ago," laughed longtime Reston activist Joe Stowers.
"But I only moved here 21 years ago," Graves replied with a grin.
Stower's assumption that Graves, a former aide to Fairfax Supervisor Cathy Hudgins, has been helping others in Reston since the beginning is an easy mistake to make. Graves has been ubiquitous among Reston's community service circles for as long as anyone can remember.
"Ellen's kind of a pied piper," said Linda Singer, a close friend who worked with Graves on Hudgins' 1999 campaign. "If there's a community service project going on, she'll bring you along, she'll bring all of her friends. If you get Ellen included, she's likely to bring more bodies."
Graves, who is particularly active in working for the poor and underprivileged, is known for founding the Coat Closet with Reston Interfaith last year. When she heard that a homeless person at the Embry Rucker Shelter needed a winter coat, she organized the project and ended up collecting 625 coats for low-income residents of the area.
Also, Graves has been a member of the Fairfax County Social Services Board since 1996. The board sets the social services policy for the county.
Perhaps Graves' most visible accomplishment is the Reston Multicultural Festival, which she helped establish four years ago. Held at Lake Anne Plaza, the annual event celebrates the culture of Restonians from all races, ethnicities, and nationalities. Graves also helps out with the Martin Luther King, Jr, Day celebration every year.
"That's why Bob Simon founded this community — to bring together different cultures," Graves said.
A small sampling of Graves' other community service projects include: serving on the FISH board for three years; working with the Private Industry Council, which helps individuals get off welfare by locating them jobs; and helping out with the Youth Leadership Camp, which works to inspire students to become future leaders.
"Volunteerism is a way of life," Graves said.
GRAVES GLEANED this way of life from her mother, who taught her to always help the less fortunate. When Graves' mother moved to Virginia, she would cook dinner for their impoverished neighbors every Sunday.
"She was very involved in the community," Graves said. "She was a volunteer before there was even a word for being a volunteer."
Volunteerism has become a generational thing in the Graves household. Her mother taught her to do community service and she in turn taught her two daughters, who then taught their children.
"Financially we'll never be wealthy," Graves said, "but we're wealthy in so many other ways — giving and charity."
That attitude toward volunteerism fits well with Reston's culture, Graves said, in which community service is part of the founding ideals.
"Reston's the kind of place where everyone's involved," she said.
And few people are as involved in the community as Graves, Singer said. When a chef at Champps Americana Restaurant hosted a dinner for foster children, Graves helped find volunteers to staff the event. When she heard a low-income woman couldn't afford a ride to get to church, Graves started driving her every Sunday.
"She's just an extraordinary friend," Singer said. "I can rely on her for anything. If she promises to do something, it'll get done. She's just a terrific asset to the community."
WHEN IT COMES to volunteer work, Graves wants the entire community to help correct the challenges facing the needy, Singer said.
"It doesn't matter about your income level or your race," Singer said. "She's always wanted to make sure everyone is involved."
That commitment to helping the poor is a big part of why Graves was selected to be one of this year's Best of Reston awards. The awards are an annual fundraiser for the local non-profit organization, which operates the local food bank, runs the Laurel Learning Center and other service programs throughout the community.
Like many of the other Best of Reston honorees, Graves is quick to point out that she is only one among many Reston volunteers who help provide service to the community.
"It takes more than one person to make a difference," she said. "Everyone has the capability. It's ingrained in all of us — to give and help each other."