Down to the Wire

Down to the Wire

Our Neighbor's Child prepares to deliver toys.

It's crunch time for the dedicated volunteers of Our Neighbor's Child (ONC). By Sunday evening, this nonprofit group of local residents will have delivered new toys and clothing to 600 families in need in the Centreville, Chantilly and Clifton area.

THAT NUMBER includes nearly 1,900 children, and this is ONC's 14th season of unselfish giving at Christmastime. But each year, no matter how great the challenge, the volunteers somehow manage to get everything accomplished — and with a smile.

"What's nice about this is knowing you really are doing some good," said Virginia Run's Lucy Richter, who's coordinating this Sunday's delivery operation. "We're working locally. You give whatever you can give, and you can see the direct impact."

Over the past month, the volunteers have conducted toy drives and set up giving trees in some churches, businesses and preschools. Then people picked ornaments off these trees to learn what gifts were needed by the families, purchased them and placed them under the trees.

ONC later collected these items and is packaging them all, this Thursday, Dec. 15. That's lead shopper Regina O'Shaughnessy's busiest day; but she doesn't wait until then to spring into action.

"Before packaging day, I go out and get items for teens because we usually don't get many teen-age gifts donated," she said. She buys electronic items, such as MP3 and CD players. And, said O'Shaughnessy, "I also buy a lot of gift certificates from Target, Best Buy and Kohl's where teen-agers can purchase clothes, music, books, etc."

Her daughter Kristin, 17, helps pick out some of the gifts for teens, such as jewelry and purses. And earlier, O'Shaughnessy and ONC treasurer Karen Moore went shopping for makeup, lotions and shower gels for teen girls, and wallets for the boys.

"Then on packaging day, as soon as the packaging leads figure out what gifts specific children really wanted, but weren't donated — such as a Dora the Explorer doll — they make a list of all these things," said O'Shaughnessy. "I have 10 shoppers, and we go out on packaging day and try to get them so the other volunteers can finish up packaging that day. And a lot of times, we'll make another run for more gift certificates."

SHE'S WORKED with ONC for eight or nine years and, in previous years, she's called the recipient families to find out what presents their children want, and she's also helped with packaging. This is her third year doing the shopping, and she's truly happy to lend a hand wherever needed. Said O'Shaughnessy: "It's a little bit of my time to help so many children."

Richter normally helps out volunteers Kay Blunt and Jill Carey on delivery day, but this is her first year coordinating that part of the effort. She opens all the e-mails from people volunteering to deliver the bags of goodies to each family, prints them and adds all their names to her data base.

"I see who can and can't help, compile a list and stay in touch with them," she explained. "Then I send e-mails to better than 150 people, reminding them that the day is coming."

And on delivery day, tables are set up in ONC's warehouse with maps and addresses, and drivers stand in line to pick up the bags they'll bring to the families. "We ask how many families they'd like to deliver to, and we try to group them together [geographically]," said Richter. "And so many people come back several times and get more bags to deliver."

She got involved because Blunt's a good friend of hers, and also because, as ONC's operation expanded over the years to meet the growing demand, she wanted to pitch in, too. "I appreciate everyone's efforts," said Richter. "Everyone's willing to do whatever it takes."

She said the hardest part of her job was "trying to send out a mass e-mail and not being able to without help, but [volunteer] Chris Donahue bailed me out a lot."

And she takes great satisfaction in knowing that she's doing her part. "The holidays aren't just about me and my family," said Richter. "We've got to remember that people living close to us need help."

Pam Ryan of Clifton's Cedar Knolls community is in her fifth year with ONC and her second year in charge of the cookie collection. But she also praises the efforts of Barbara and Gary Malm of Hunt Chase and their daughter Jill.

"They've been indispensable, especially in the last week [of the cookie drive]," said Ryan. "They're the cookie logistics team and they make everything happen." Then on delivery Sunday, the Malms are at the warehouse all day, making sure each driver heads out with cookies for the families whose presents they're bringing.

And earlier in the week, they go to Westfield and Centreville high schools, pick up the cookies baked and packaged by the students and take them to the distribution point.

"We try to give two dozen per family so — with 600 families this year — we have to have 14,000 cookies," said Ryan. "And Centreville High also does a toiletry drive, and these items also have to be picked up."

RYAN'S DAUGHTER Kaki goes to Clifton Elementary and, this year, that school is also contributing homemade cookies, as is the Clifton Presbyterian Church preschool. "We never give store-bought — we always get homemade cookies," said Ryan. "And sometimes, they're really elaborate, with fancy frosting, or they're gingerbread cookies with all the trimming."

She says baking cookies for ONC is "a great way for people to get together and do something fun to help others." Often, families, clubs and Scout troops bake together. And, said Ryan, "Leader Lisa Graine's Girl Scout troop has a rule that, for each cookie a child consumes, one must be donated."

Ryan's job starts in September when she contacts the two high schools to make sure they're still participating. Then she orders bags for the toiletries, boxes for the cookies and colored labels saying, "Happy holidays from all your community volunteers at Our Neighbor's Child."

"We give ONC's address, too and, often, people write and express their thanks to us, and it's so nice," she said. "Then, the Monday of delivery week, I drop off all the packaging materials to the high schools. And everyone benefits — the people receiving the cookies and the volunteers making them."

Ryan says she helps each year because ONC's executive director, Kelly Lavin, has really inspired her. "You can't help but get something out of it when you participate with this group of dedicated people," she explained. "Plus, it's an excellent life lesson for your children — the concept that somebody else can't afford a holiday. They learn that there's a need and it's important to help."

The Town of Clifton also contributed to ONC's holiday undertaking. At its Christmas party last Sunday for the town children, Clifton Elementary PTA President Phyllis Lovett — who organized the event with the Clifton Betterment Association — asked attendees to bring toys for ONC's toy drive. As a result, on Monday, Ryan was able to deliver 50 toys to ONC's warehouse.

And it's efforts such as this one and others that warm Lavin's heart. "Last week, we got a donation of $1,600 from a man named Irwin Chu who collected this money from his family and friends," she said. "He's the father of an Oakton High School student who died in a car accident, a few years ago, and he donated it in his son's name."

SYA basketball coach Bob Korman works with Chu and told him about ONC, and Chu contributed the money for bicycles for needy children. And as always, ONC volunteer Marty Clarke will put them together so they're ready for delivery.

WHAT ONC accomplishes each year is a huge responsibility, said Lavin and, "Sometimes, it makes you pause." And now and then, something wonderful happens, such as Chu's generous donation.

Or a person will take an ornament that says "bicycle" off a giving tree. Then, said Lavin, "They'll tell us they don't have the time to shop for it — but they'll give us a check for $500. And it's always amazing when you get an isolated incident like that."

And the caring spirit and enthusiasm of the ONC volunteers can be contagious. For example, on Tuesday, ONC's church coordinator, Sharon Maria Clayton, brought the gifts from the giving trees to ONC's warehouse.

"Her son Tony, 18, made ornaments for the giving trees, as a child," said Lavin. "This time, he helped his mom unload the truck, and he was amazed to see all the gifts in the warehouse. He wanted to stay and help out, and it was so cool to see that whole lightbulb go off in him [as he realized the magnitude of what ONC does]."

Pleased when people and organizations do more than expected, she said Bull Run Elementary held a toy collection for ONC and received so many donations that ONC's toy-collection person had to make two trips to the school to get it all.

"There are families in need in every school community," said Lavin. "And when you're a child from a family who's struggling — and you see your school collecting gifts — it makes you realize how much the schools care for others in their community."

Furthermore, she said, "We also greatly appreciate the efforts of all the churches who host giving trees because we know how much they're called upon to provide food baskets for these same families."

Often, said Lavin, people ask why ONC would want to commit itself to such a large project during the already-busy holiday season. They'll say, "How can you enjoy your own Christmas when you have all that work to do?"

"All I can say is that — in all the years of having many of the things I've wished for — I've never truly enjoyed the holiday as I do now," replied Lavin. "When I can have moments like Tuesday night, while logging in the gifts dropped off to ONC, and I find a small baggie with the words, 'For any family,' written in red marker.

"Attached is one of those preprinted, return-address labels from a street of modest homes in Chantilly, and inside there are four $25 gift cards. This woman put $100 in a baggie and trusted that ONC would get it safely to a family in need. On Sunday, when we deliver to these families, we'll have the chance to complete this circle of faith and caring, and bring joy to a child. I can't imagine a better way to celebrate Christmas."