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Holiday Coalition Searches for Space

Pat Wimmer carried a Christmas tree through a neglected Atlanta neighborhood to a mother who had never had a Christmas tree before.

The mother, daughter and son lived in one of those neighborhoods with barred up windows; one of those towns no one wanders around alone. Except Wimmer, who delivered a free Christmas tree to one of Atlanta's poverty-stricken families through the Reindeer Express program.

Wimmer knew she needed to get involved in a holiday volunteer program when she moved to Northern Virginia because of her Atlanta experience. The night she delivered the tree, she received a 911 call from the mother. Thinking the tree burned down, Wimmer returned to the house. She found the mother standing next to a pathetically decorated Christmas tree with a light in her eyes that brightened up its modesty.

"That is what this is all about," Wimmer said. "These people are down and out. It's great to remind them of the glitter and glitz associated with Christmas as well as the angels and nativity scenes."

A FULL-TIME volunteer, Wimmer, 58, established Reindeer Express as a branch of the Community Holiday Coalition when she moved to Leesburg five years ago.

Wimmer stumbled upon the Holiday Coalition, a group of more than 20 local government and nonprofit agencies that serve less fortunate families, children and senior citizens during Thanksgiving and Christmas, including the Good Shepherd Alliance, Interfaith Relief and the Department of Social Services.

Celebrating its 10th year, the Holiday Coalition assists thousands of local families and individuals each year based on income. Last year, the program served 1,190 families, representing 4,429 individuals of whom 2,353 were children, said Karen Velez, the program coordinator of the Holiday Coalition.

A founding member of the Holiday Coalition, Velez has witnessed the growth of the program, which is now the largest holiday service program in Loudoun County.

Each year, the Holiday Coalition uses a designated space as a store that is stocked full of donated food and merchandise, where families "shop" for holiday items. All of the items are brand new except for Thanksgiving, where the program provides gently-used coats to families.

"We like to empower people for a shopping trip," Velez said. "You name it, we got it."

For Thanksgiving, families register, volunteers help them pick out coats for each family member and they receive a box of food.

For Christmas, families register and then go "shopping." They receive a personal care basket, Christmas decorations and toys for each child. The only age group that is not covered is the parents. Gifts and clothing are available for babies, teenagers and senior citizens.

Christmas also features Reindeer Express, Wimmer's program that showcases themed Christmas trees decorated by a floral designer. Last year, 45 trees were donated as well as thousands of ornaments.

SINCE ITS creation, the Holiday Coalition has had problems finding space for a distribution site and this coming year is no different. For the first five years of the program, the coalition organized itself in the National Guard Armory in Leesburg. However, the program quickly outgrew the site. "It was 6,000-square-feet and we were helping 600 families. We've grown much bigger since then."

After its stint at the Armory, the program has relocated to locations like the Wal-Mart in Sterling and empty warehouses.

For the past two years, however, the Lerner Corporation has offered its Sterling building. Velez has not heard from the Lerner Corporation about the status of the building and has begun searching for a suitable space for this year.

Part of the problem is that places with space want to rent it but the Holiday Coalition requests the space for free, Velez said. "I want a commitment early. I need to know now," she said. "We're going to begin pushing for donations in September. In Loudoun County, there are many empty spaces, but they don't all have electricity and heating."

Empty space is needed as soon as possible, especially since the Boy Scouts recently donated 45,000-50,000 pounds of food to the Holiday Coalition.

It would be ideal if the program could use high schools or community centers as a distribution site. However, it is impossible to occupy places with ongoing events.

Velez has pulled out a 2-inch-thick folder with contacts of possible space contributors. The Holiday Coalition requires basic amenities like heat, electricity, bathrooms, a kitchen and wheelchair access. The space should also be 15,000-20,000 square feet.

For Beverly Slayton, 49, the only frustrating part of her involvement with the Holiday Coalition is the annual struggle to find a distribution site. "I'd really like for us to have a home of our own called the Community Holiday Coalition building," she said through laughter. "Year to year we have no idea where we will be."

Slayton has volunteered for the Holiday Coalition as its food distribution coordinator since its foundation and even schedules her work vacations around the program's schedule. She said that she has confidence that the program will find a space but, if worst comes to worst, the program will brave the elements and distribute holiday essentials from a parking lot.

"I have faith that there is a space for us," Slayton said. "There is a person, a company, a corporation out there for us. And, if there isn't, it will still happen."

For Wimmer, one of the best things about being a volunteer is the spontaneity. "That's the art of being a volunteer," she said. "Just do it. You'll always figure out a way to do it."

Velez must have a verified location by Sept. 1. There are alternatives to a single distribution site, though. For one, there could be multiple, smaller distribution sites. Another option is mailing out gift cards. "But that would take away from the spirit of Christmas," Velez said.

LOUDOUN COUNTY is hardly associated with people struggling to make ends meet. Nevertheless, the Holiday Coalition wants residents to acknowledge that there is a growing need for community assistance programs in the county.

"We're not just helping those suffering from poverty. It's also the working poor," Velez said. "The number of individuals we serve is directly related to county growth. There are more people working retail and service jobs."

Velez said that the greatest part about being involved with the program is the people. "The people on both sides is the most satisfying thing about this," she said. "The people who want to give and the people who need help. I've seen many people who once received donations from the program come back to volunteer."

When more expensive items like bicycles are donated to the Holiday Coalition, they are raffled. Velez remembered that a family who won a bicycle at a raffle returned with three bicycles for the raffle.

Slayton stressed the importance of programs like the Holiday Coalition. "Without programs like this, children would wake up with nothing under their Christmas tree," she said. "No one wants to see that in their personal lives. You're talking thousands of individuals, people who truly need assistance. We know the need is out there and this programs fulfills it."