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Holiday Coalition Loses Space

Last Christmas, a mother was reduced to tears as she gathered food, clothing and toys for her four children at the Community Holiday Coalition's store in Sterling. She had lost her job after spending so much time tending to her daughter, who was in the hospital with influenza.

"They were teetering on the edge anyway, and it tossed them off," recalled volunteer Michelle Taliaferro, who had escorted the woman and her older daughter as they selected Christmas gifts, which were donated by a variety of individuals and organizations.

In 2003, the Holiday Coalition helped 1,100 families like the one Taliaferro remembered. This year, it's unknown how many families will benefit from the coalition, which also gives away Christmas trees and Thanksgiving dinners.

On Sept. 16, Lerner Corporation informed Karen Velez, Holiday Coalition coordinator, that the space it had donated for the past two years would not be available for use.

"This isn't the first time we've had to move," said Velez, who has been with the Holiday Coalition since its founding in 1996. For the first five years, the coalition found a home in the National Guard Armory in Leesburg, and later settled in the Wal-Mart in Sterling.

When Velez came to the Lerner building at the corner of Waxpool Road and Route 28 in Sterling, however, it was the perfect site. At 57,000 square feet, separate rooms for food and clothing, central heat and a location central to many of the families Velez serves, the building was a find.

"We could probably get away with about 15 to 20,000 square feet," Velez said. "We'll just have to be a little more cozy."

With construction on the Lerner building starting on Oct. 1 for the new tenant (a furniture store), Velez needs to find a new location, and fast. She still stores leftover goods from last year's clothing and toy collection in the building. Families will turn in eligibility applications by Nov. 5, and by that point, they need to know where the store will be held to know if they can attend.

IT TAKES six months from the first planning day to the last leftover toy being packed away for the Community Holiday Coalition's job to be done for the year, according to Velez. Over 110,000 tons of food are given away, along with countless articles of clothing, toys and books.

"Everything in the store is 100 percent brand new," said Velez. Families "shop" for goods, and depending on the number of children, receive one or two shopping carts full of food, winter coats and stockings stuffed with toys.

"The beauty of our program is that every person that goes through our store gets escorted by a personal shopper who helps them make their selection," Velez said. That ensures that a family with children of different ages, for example, will get clothing that fits each child.

The program has proved so popular that its volunteers are often extremely devoted. Taliaferro was so moved by her experience in 2003 that she's scheduling a babysitter to watch her toddler this year so her husband can join her as a volunteer.

Beverly Slayton schedules her vacation time from work around the Holiday Coalition timetable. During the holiday season, she spends hours organizing and preparing the turkeys, vegetables, stuffing and other ingredients that add up to a traditional holiday dinner.

"I live there," Slayton said.

For Slayton, volunteering at the store has proven rewarding.

"It's something that I can do," she said. "There's been some financial times in my life when things were hard. It's something I love being a part of."

Slayton added that clients are so overwhelmed by the store's encompassing variety of donated goods that when their lives turn around, they sometimes become volunteers.

"They're just about as overwhelmed as I am to see the generosity of the Loudoun County people," Slayton said.

TALIAFERRO ADMITS to being "really distressed" at the store's predicament. As president of the Junior Women's Club of Loudoun, a volunteer organization, Taliaferro has already begun spreading the word among its 46 members, hoping that a husband or a friend or a coworker or someone might know of a potential site.

"The need is just incredible in this area," Taliaferro said. "It's not just what you think of as the stereotypical poor. It's crosses all lines, all races."

Velez has already heard from several potential sites, but none fit her basic needs: electricity, heat, kitchen and at least 15,000 square feet.

Slayton continues to be hopeful for this year's store.

"I still have faith that there is somebody out there who has just the right space for us," she said. "This last place was just ideal. God knows where it is and he'll direct us there."