What started out as an e-mail list for people to know what was happening around Great Falls has turned into a four-community information revolution, thanks to the foresight of one woman and the help of her neighbors.
Formerly the FYI Network, Sharon Rainey's Neighbors e-mail and Web site information system has grown to serving McLean, Vienna and Reston in addition to Great Falls within the past few months, with the hopes of expanding into other markets in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area very soon.
"We hope to have nine or 10 branches within the next year," Rainey said from the Neighbors office on Walker Road in Great Falls. "There's no reason why every community in American can't have a branch."
Rainey moved to the community in 1991 and "didn't know anyone or anything," she said. She became involved in the PTA at Great Falls Elementary School as a way to meet people and learn her way around Great Falls.
"This all started from the PTA's e-mail network," she said. "There were some community events that we wanted to announce, but they weren't PTA-related, so I began sending out e-mails to people whose names I had on that list. The subject lines would all either be 'PTA' or 'FYI', which is how that network got started."
Without a background in computers, the Internet or information technology, Rainey said she has learned everything that goes into running a large e-mail listserve and referral network on the spot.
"The referral lists started when people who had just moved to the area began asking if I knew of a gymnastics school for their kids," she said. She realized that her contacts from the PTA gave her access to information that she might not personally have, but she knew someone had be able to fill in the gaps.
NOW, WITH MORE THAN 800 referral lists and more than 900 members in Great Falls alone, the information-dispersing system has taken on a new task: becoming a recognized nonprofit organization.
"In December, on a lark, I was talking with the volunteer coordinator for the Children's Hospital and was told their gift closet was empty," Rainey said. With the holidays approaching, she turned to the members of the Neighbors network for some help.
"I was told we could drop off whatever we'd like at the hospital but they couldn't make out tax receipts," she said.
Regardless of that, Rainey said she was able to collect six SUVs filled, floor to ceiling and front to back, with gifts and donations for the hospital.
"We started collecting for care packages for the troops overseas around the same time," she said. "The donations just didn't stop coming in after the holidays."
With people being so generous without expecting anything back, Rainey realized it was time to consider becoming a nonprofit organization.
Along with some help from member Paul Sullivan and Sarah Glennon, the Neighbors International Foundation currently holds a pending status with the IRS to become a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization.
"We've sent over 1,200 care packages to the troops," she said, with boxes of food, Beanie Babies and personal care items in a storage room at the Neighbors office. She plans another toy collecting drive for Children's Hospital during the holiday season and is constantly looking for donations for the care packages, along with volunteers to help assemble and ship the packages.
During a surprise party to celebrate Rainey's birthday and the launch of the McLean Neighbors Network, Ernest May told Rainey that he would be willing to offer his assistance in the formation of the nonprofit organization.
"I am the president of a nonprofit that was formed about four years ago, so I volunteered to help her as well," May said. "She took that offer and ran with it and invited me to join the board."
The six-member board has only met a few times, May said, in order to set some bylaws and take care of "nuts-and-bolts types of things that go along with any start-up."
"We started this nonprofit as an adjunct to the Neighbors philosophy of neighbors helping each other," he said. "We have access to a lot of people with items or money they might want to contribute to different causes, and we wanted to be able to offer them a tax write-off for their generosity."
With the focus being to "keep things simple," currently only two projects have been adopted: collecting gifts for Children's Hospital during the holidays and continuing to send care packages to the troops overseas.
May and Rainey said they hope a network can be created between Neighbors and other nonprofit organizations, like churches and schools, in order to further pool resources and information to better serve the community.
A RELATIONSHIP has already been forged with the Reston substation of the Fairfax County Police, a partnership that allows for the free exchange of information from those charged with protecting the community and those who live there.
Rainey said she got the idea of teaming up with the local police station from her "guardian angel."
"There was an 11-year-old girl missing in Great Falls and I got a call from one of the officers in Reston, who told me that one of my members mentioned this might be a good way to get out information," Rainey said. The girl was later found in a house that was being built and came home safely, she said.
"Later on, we sat down and reviewed how we could help each other," said Captain Mike Vencak of the Reston station.
"A lot of people look at her Web site, and the issue we've always faced is getting information out to the community quickly," he said. "She's agreed to publish our monthly newsletter, and I hooked her up with our public information officer to get all our press releases and send out the ones that relate to Great Falls."
He knew the partnership was effective in March, when a family in Great Falls was the victim of a home invasion.
"I called her that morning to get the information out and never received a single phone call from a resident wondering what was going on," he said. "They'd all gotten the information off her network."
THE PARTNERSHIP ALLOWS for a faster exchange of information, either on crimes that have been committed or issues that concern the community, Vencak said.
"It's been a very valuable tool for us," he said. "Sometimes it takes care of incidents that we would have to respond to and later find out were nothing major. Sometimes they alert us to things the community is concerned about that we wouldn't otherwise hear of," he said.
As a member, Janet Jameson said the Neighbors Network has helped her find everything from a company to wash her house to a way to brighten up her daughter's day.
"My daughter Laura had been sick for a while and was in the hospital in Baltimore," Jameson said. "I asked her what she'd like to have at home when we were bringing her down for a visit, and she said she'd like to see some balloons."
A few e-mail exchanges on the Neighbors Network, and her daughter got her wish.
"Our yard was filled with balloons," Jameson said, recalling watching a man and his young son walking down the street with balloons in hand to contribute to the collection. "There's a lot of wonderful things Sharon has been able to do through this organization."
When a man was seen accosting children getting off Fairfax County school buses last year, it was the help of the Neighbors Network that allowed parents to be forewarned in time for the late-afternoon bus runs, she said.
"When you participate in Neighbors, you feel like you're really connected to the community," she said. "People want to live somewhere where they feel connected with their neighbors. That's how we used to get our information, talking with each other."
JAMESON LIKENED the Neighbors system to an old-fashioned community event.
"It's been too long since someone needed a barn raising," she said with a laugh. "We do that type of thing here every day."
Irene Zaso was a member of the group before it was known as the FYI Network, after talking with another mother who had children at Great Falls Elementary School.
"We've gotten referrals on who to build our deck to how my son can organize his Legos," she said. "It's been a tremendous help."
Having literally thousands of referrals from hundreds of people available with a simple e-mail or glance at a Web site is a "great thing for people new to the area," Zaso said. "When you're new, going through the Yellow Pages to find something doesn't always help. You don't know who's good and who isn't."
All that readily-available information has become something of a double-edged sword for Rainey, who began charging a $50-per-year membership fee two years ago.
"People are choosing not to renew their subscriptions because they can get the information from their friends, but if we don't have members we can't continue to do the work we do," she said. "If the information is sent forward to other people who are not members, not only is it against the rules of the contract they signed when they joined, they lose out on any extra referrals that person might have."
Still, the connections she makes and the help she provides far outweigh the glitches that are inevitable.
"I've created some incredible friendships with people that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise," Rainey said. "Sometimes it helps people find a house painter, sometimes it helps people find a way to get blood transfusions."