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Angels Grow on Trees

The Salvation Army's Angel Tree at Tysons offers the opportunity to provide Christmas gifts to children in need.

The Angel Trees outside Hecht's in Tysons Corner are two of many such trees across the country which, tended by the Salvation Army, yield a crop of holiday charity.

The trees are adorned with paper angels, each bearing the first name of a local child in need, his or her clothing and shoe sizes, and a holiday wish list. For example, Demetrius, age 11, wants PlayStation games. Stephanie, 12, wants clothes and a bike. Heewa, 6, is asking for a bike, a Game Boy, a coat and sweaters.

Shoppers can pluck one or more angels from a tree and purchase an outfit for the child, items from the wish list and/or other age-appropriate gifts. The angels and gifts are then to be returned to the tree, where they are picked up twice daily by the Salvation Army and will be distributed on Dec. 19.

"We tell people they don't have to get whatever's on the list," said Damari Canas, who helps man the trees, noting that one child had asked for a television.

Capt. Kathy Burton, who is running the trees for the Fairfax unit of the Salvation Army this year, said the wish list was added to the angels after repeated requests by the public. The program started out with the hope of just getting each child a new outfit, she said.

Burton just recently moved to the area, but she said she has been running Angel Trees for the last 10 or 15 years. In Staunton, she said, "we took the wish off and people had a fit, so we put it back on."

Some people just buy the wish, she said, while others might "go all out and buy four or five outfits and the wish."

In addition to what is contributed through the Angel Trees, the Salvation Army purchases two gifts for each child, as well as a stocking, which is filled by local groups, often churches or businesses.

"It's a community effort. It's not just the Salvation Army," said Burton. "We can't do it by ourselves."

THE SALVATION ARMY'S Fairfax unit serves a broad area, encompassing most of the county, including the cities and townships, and it has trees at each Wal-Mart and at BJ's Wholesale Club in Fair Lakes. However, Burton said she was told the Tysons Corner tree usually gets the biggest response.

She also said she was a little worried about this year's response. For the first time, applications to be an angel on the tree are being accepted from children up to 16 years old, rather than up to 12, resulting in an increase in applicants. This change was made by Burton herself.

"In my house, I have teenagers, and I couldn't see myself giving gifts to one child and not another," she said.

Also, Katrina victims who have come to the area have been added to the list of applicants.

Last year, said Burton, 1,862 children were served. As of last Wednesday, this year's number of applicants was up to 1,988, and applications are being taken through Dec. 1. However, she said, "From what I've heard, the community here is very generous." She said she understood that in years past, the local Angel Trees came through "pretty close to 100 percent."

Friday evening, with Tysons Corner Mall still flooded with shoppers, both Burton's son, Jeremy, and Canas, who were manning the trees, said there had been many takers over the course of the day. Behind them sat a hot pink bike that had been contributed.

"One couple that was here today said when they got here, there were only a few angels left," said Canas, adding that the couple had wanted at least four angels from the same family. "People like to contribute because they know these are kids from the area," she said.

Pat Chand, who picked out two angels with her husband and two daughters, said the family has been contributing to the tree for the last four or five years. "We like to pick girls about their own age," she said, indicating her daughters and noting that they will be the ones picking out the gifts.

"We hope they learn about giving as well as taking," said Chand's husband, Vijay.

"We've been doing this for years," said Deepa Madhavan. "It's the spirit of giving." She said her family usually chooses a young boy and girl.

Alexandra Csatari, 22, said she and her mother had shopped for the Angel Tree when she was young. "I'm a 'Star Wars' fan, and this kid wants 'Star Wars' stuff," she said of her angel. "I know what I'd want if I were still in the toy mode."

Sometime this week, angels for senior citizens in need are being added to the trees, said Capt. Burton.

All angels must be returned by Dec. 17 in order to be distributed. Gifts must be new and unwrapped.