What began as a request for gifts to brighten the season for 40 children eight years ago has grown into a Christmas project providing presents to over 3,000 needy children countywide.
The entire engine bay area of Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department's Woodlawn Station in Mount Vernon District, was stuffed. Everything from bicycles to Barbie dolls waited for distribution to area families.
Under a combined partnership with private corporations and local businesses, Fairfax County firefighters and paramedics distributed thousands of gifts Dec. 16 during their Eighth Annual Firefighter's Holiday Rescuer's Toy Drive.
"We wouldn't be able to do this if it weren't for all the support we get from the community," said Master Technician Will Bailey of the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. Bailey founded the event eight years ago and remains primary organizer for the annual giving effort.
Bailey said the event has grown into a major effort. The firefighters volunteer their time. School counselors, recreation center employees, shelter personnel and the Fairfax County Department of Family Services distribute the toys.
One of the distributors at the station, with list in hand, was Karen May Lewis a school social worker for Cora Kelly Magnet School in Alexandria.
"There are two of us here from Cora Kelly, each with 15 names on our list. I have one child that really wants a bike. He's a very tall fifth grader," Lewis said.
Jennifer Anderson and Mevelyn Watkins are counselors at Hybla Valley and Glen Forest Elementary Schools.
"We have 10 families on our lists," said Watkins. It was her third year distributing toys.
For Anderson, it was her first experience.
"This whole thing is amazing. It's so well organized and the gifts are the best," Anderson said.
One of Baily's biggest sponsors for the past five years has been BearingPoint, Inc.
"We wanted to get involved with Fairfax County so I called the chief at that time. He said they really didn't have a program. But, he said he knew of this one firefighter that was doing a toy drive for some kids," said Barbara DeRosa a human resource assistant for BearingPoint. DeRosa became acquainted with Bailey who offered to bring a pick-up truck to collect toys. "I told him he better make it a full size truck. We had an entire room packed with toys. Since then we've adopted Will Bailey."
Another long time toy drive volunteer is Brian Abel, formerly with Chadwick's in Old Town Alexandria and now a project manager with Rollins PCI Construction in Maryland.
"This is my eighth year. I came when it started and got others at Chadwick's to volunteer," Abel said.
It was so important to Abel to continue volunteering each year he got a provision in his work contract with his new company to allow time off to help.
"This is really important, particularly at this time of year," Abel said.
Other primary corporate sponsors include Gaylord Hotels and Safeway, Inc. They have been joined by a host of local businesses and civic organizations. Thirty gifts were given to each school to satisfy a predetermined list of children's requests.
Originally operated under the auspices of the Progressive Firefighters of Fairfax County, Inc., the toy drive is now a joint effort between Progressive, Fairfax County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics, IAFF Local 2068, and Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department.
"This is an outstanding example of what this job is all about, helping the community in many different ways. And Willie exemplifies what a firefighter is all about. He always gives 110 percent," said Battalion Chief Floyd Ellmore, who was assigned to Station 24 in February 2005. This was his first toy drive.
For Captain Anthony Jackson, an 18-year fire department veteran who arrived at the Woodlawn Station in August 2005, this was his second year of participation. He volunteered to help last year.
"It's really wonderful we are able to do this to help the entire community rather than just responding to 911 calls. The support of the business community is amazing," he said.
Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department Chief Michael P. Neuhard stood in awe at the scene in the engine bay.
"The real hero here is Willie. He takes our community involvement to a whole new level every year," he said. "This also is a perfect example of the power of partnerships. When you combine firefighters and businesses and the social service people, it's a win-win for everybody. Especially the needy families."