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On the Assembly Line

Volunteers stuff backpacks for needy students in community project.

In the lower level of the Massey Building, the assembly line stretched across three tables. Nearly 100 volunteers from across Fairfax County stuffed, zipped and boxed backpacks for students as part of the "Celebration of Giving and Sharing" project Wednesday, Nov. 16.

"It's truly a community-wide project," said Tonya McCreary, development director at Volunteer Fairfax, which runs the project to surprise needy schoolchildren with new, filled backpacks in their classrooms.

The project is comprised of three main events — Packing Party, at which volunteers pack the bags; Delivery Day, when they take the backpacks to the schools; and Discovery Day, this year Dec. 2, when the children find the backpacks as they come into class — but the behind-the-scenes work spans several months, said Volunteer Fairfax executive director Jeanne Sanders.

Caring and Sharing began as part of Volunteer Houston years ago, said Sanders, but this is Volunteer Fairfax’s third year with the project. Last year, she said, volunteers packed and distributed backpacks for nearly 2,000 area students.

The brightly-colored plastic backpacks, which boast stuffed animals, toys, children's books and school supplies, will go to seven schools this year: Annandale Terrace Elementary School in Annandale; Bucknell, Cameron, Hybla Valley, Parklawn and Weyanoke elementary schools in Alexandria; and Dogwood Elementary School in Reston. These schools count over half their students as qualified for free or reduced-fee lunches, said McCreary.

THE PURPOSE of the project is twofold, said Sanders: to provide underprivileged children with surprise gifts and to teach them about sharing.

"For many children, this may be the only gift they get for the entire season," Sanders said. "For many, it might be the only book they own." After the children receive their backpacks, she said, they will in turn make gifts for residents of a nursing home. This part of the project is new this year, and will help teach the children the value of giving.

"Sometimes we shortchange children and don't think they understand the concept [of giving], but they do," said Sanders, describing the time she went to a pre-kindergarten class on Discovery Day. The young students were thrilled, she said, but one boy asked if it was all right if he shared his gift with his younger brother.

"It's helping kids build self-esteem, it's helping them build literacy," said McCreary. "It's emphasizing the spirit of giving and sharing … building the seeds of volunteerism."

"With all the different disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Pakistan, we feel like some of the locals shouldn’t be forgotten," said Kennedy Keenan, a Delaware native and freshman at George Mason University. Keenan had gathered a group of friends from school to help stuff backpacks as part of a class.

"For the kids … you know, they're going to school, I want them to get a smile out of it," said George Mason student Shaliana McFarland. "And I like the concept of giving something, learning to share themselves."

Keenan added that everyone should volunteer somehow. "I mean, if a bunch of freshmen in college can do it, then anyone can."

"There are so many people here, they've been really friendly and really efficient," said Tim Neun. The lifelong Fairfax resident wanted to give back to the community he grew up in after he graduated from Virginia Tech two years ago.

"Hopefully, this will make a day special for the students," said Neun. Recently, Neun said, he was chosen to organize volunteer projects at his employer, SI International.

For Jim Tragakis of Springfield, the joy is in the giving.

"It's an incredible feeling, to see the looks on their faces and to see how grateful they are," he said. Tragakis, who is on the Volunteer Fairfax Board of Directors, brings his two children every year to help fill backpacks. Volunteer events help him show his own children about giving, he said.

"As people say what they are thankful for, they can say, 'I'm thankful for my life and my good fortune,' and want to reach out and share," said Sanders.