Ten days before Christmas, the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce gave its highest award to a woman who has turned a personal tragedy into a holiday triumph for needy children.
Karen Brown received the Herbert C. Hunter Citizen of the Year award at the Chamber's Annual Dinner on Thursday, Dec. 15, for her contributions to the community through Kristi's Christmas, which provides a shopping trip and presents to more than 50 children and their families every year.
When Kristi Brown, the youngest daughter of Karen Brown and her husband, Bill, was killed in a car accident, Karen Brown decided to carry on her daughter's love of helping children.
"Originally a one-day event, local schools would identify needy children who would otherwise fall through the cracks," said Eric Williams, who received the award in 2001.
Recruiting high school volunteers from West Springfield High School, where Kristi had graduated, Brown would organize a shopping trip that in the early years provided a gift bag and new clothes for a handful of children. Now, almost 20 years later, Kristi's Christmas is a year-long initiative, providing everything from school supplies to Christmas gifts for children and families throughout Fairfax County.
"Karen always made it clear that if anyone knew of a child in need, she wanted to know about it," Williams said. From collection donations "anywhere she could find them" to using her own home as storage space, Brown turned the loss of her daughter into a brighter day for thousands of children over the years.
"This year alone, Karen has used Kristi's Christmas to organize relief efforts for the tsunami and hurricane victims," Williams said. "She gathered up frequent-flyer miles for Katrina victims so they could come up here to get back on their feet."
ACCEPTING HER award, Karen Brown said her husband and older daughter had told her not to cry.
"This is a truly humbling experience," she said, adding that she was accepting the award "on behalf of someone who can not be with us."
She thanked the numerous businesses that have helped her, either with donations or volunteers, keep Kristi's Christmas going, providing gifts at the holidays or meeting other needs during the year.
"This is a Fairfax County project," Brown said, referring to all the projects dedicated to helping families in this area alone. "Some groups help people halfway around the world, but what we have here is the other half of the world coming here."
Her daughter Kristi had planned to be a school teacher and loved working with small children, Brown said. While in high school, Kristi often volunteered or contributed to gift drives during the holidays to provide for needy children, something Brown felt compelled to continue after her daughter's death.
"Kristi loved this project," Karen Brown said. "I'm very mindful of that spirit."
In addition to Brown, two others received citizenship awards during the annual dinner: Fairfax County Sheriff's Lt. Kevin Andariese and Tawny Hammond, manager of Lake Accotink Park.
Andariese was recognized for his work using inmate work crews to clean up graffiti and collect over 190 tons of trash from Cinderblock Road, saving the county several thousand dollars.
"Everything we do as a team at the Sheriff's office is done because it needs to be done," said Andariese, while accepting his award from Williams.
In the eight years since taking over as manager of Lake Accotink Park, Hammond has incorporated dozens of activities to bring the community to the park, including creating partnerships with area schools and scouting groups and securing sponsorships from retailers like L.L. Bean for special outdoor projects.
During the dinner, Tracy Betts was installed as the Chamber's new president for the upcoming year.
"When my husband and I moved to Springfield seven years ago, we were disheartened to hear people say they lived in West Springfield or a specific neighborhood," she said.
It wasn't until she joined the Chamber that she met people who seemed to have a sense of pride in their community, she said, a pride that has continued to grow as projects like the Mixing Bowl begin to take shape and with a concerted effort toward revitalizing the downtown area.
"Through a series of incremental efforts, the potential of Springfield has never shone brighter," Betts said.