When Victor Padilla and his family immigrated to Reston from Mexico almost 14 years ago, he took a job as a cashier at the old Lake Anne grocery store, earning barely enough to support his wife and children.
To help the Padilla family start a new life in their adopted country, Reston resident Priscilla Ames and several friends collected furniture, kitchen supplies and bicycles to donate to the Padillas.
“We have an angel here in Reston,” Padilla said of Ames at her 70th birthday party at Washington Plaza Church last Sunday. “She is our angel. I will never forget what she did.”
Padilla is one of a long list of people living in Reston and the surrounding area who have benefited from Ames’ deep generosity and hard work over the last 40 years.
Ames is considered Reston’s quintessential community activist — an advocate for the less-fortunate and a voice for progressive social justice.
“She’s the quiet force that has kept this community together,” said state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32).
Ames, along with other Reston volunteers such as the late Rev. Embry Rucker, was instrumental in bringing a homeless shelter to the community in the late 1980s.
She was also one of the original volunteers working for Reston-Herndon FISH (Friendly, Instant, Sympathetic Help), an organization that runs the Bargain Loft in Herndon and aids low-income families with emergency financial assistance. Up until three months ago, Ames was on-call for FISH, ready to help the needy at a moment’s notice.
Ames is also known for her extensive volunteer work with Reston Interfaith. She is seen as a resource to organize coat drives, food collections and anything else to help those in need.
“From the very beginning, she was out there helping others,” said Lynn Lillienthal, a longtime friend and Reston resident. “She was very much a community activist and still is.”
A SELF-DESCRIBED “Yellow Dog Democrat,” Ames has played a role in the bulk of the political races in Reston’s history. She has served as volunteer coordinator on every one of Howell’s campaigns, has helped both Del. Ken Plum (D-36) and Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) get elected multiple times, and is a close friend and confidant of Martha Pennino, the Democratic county supervisor who represented Reston from 1968 to 1992.
“We’re fortunate to have so many great people and leaders here in Reston,” Plum said. “But we’re truly blessed to have Priscilla Ames among us.”
Linda Singer, who served with Ames on the Fairfax County Human Services Board, said Ames is remarkable for her commitment to ensuring that needy members of the community are cared for.
“She has always had a true interest in human services,” Singer said.
But her dedication to helping others extends beyond community service, Ames friends say.
“She’s just been an incredible friend,” said Karen Hale, who has known Ames for 35 years. “She’s helped work miracles in my life.”
Ames has been something of a second mother to more than a few young Reston women, including Hale and Reston resident Winslow Wacker.
“Priscilla was a constant source of guidance and affection for me from the time I met her at age 12 to the present day in my mid-40s,” Wacker said.
She is the kind of woman who knows what is going on in other people’s lives and is always willing to help a friend, Howell said. She cuts out coupons for her neighbors, remembers everyone’s birthday, and is constantly mailing newspaper articles she thinks might be of interest.
“She's the kind of friend everyone needs and everyone wishes that they were,” Howell said.
ORIGINALLY FROM New York City — she likes to say she’s a “New York City girl” — Ames moved to the community in 1965 when fewer than 200 families lived in Reston.
A strong believer in the “New Town” concept, particularly the ideal that people from all income levels and races would have a home in Reston, Ames got involved in the community early on.
She volunteered at the original Reston community center at Lake Anne, called the Lake Anne Hall, and at the Common Grounds coffee shop. From the very beginning, Ames was plugged into almost every facet of the community, knowing just about everyone and everything about Reston.
“She was the person to know when you first came to Reston,” said Ann Barbieri, an artist who first moved to Reston in 1969.
Now, just shy of 40 years since she first moved to the community, Ames said she looks back on her time in Reston and believes she did some good with her fellow civic volunteers by helping the less-fortunate and by fighting the challenges of homelessness and poverty.
But, at her birthday party on Sunday, she said she is mostly just happy to be surrounded by her friends and neighbors after seven decades.
“I feel I’m very fortunate to be having my 70th birthday,” she said. “I’m just pleased I got here.”