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Our Neighbor's Child Fills Holiday Dreams

But ONC needs more groups, churches, businesses to lend a hand.

Busier than Santa's elves on Christmas Eve are the volunteers of Our Neighbor's Child (ONC) which, later this month, will provide presents for an unprecedented 600 local families in need — including 1,800-1,900 children.

BUT AS energetic and optimistic as they are, they simply can't tackle this huge undertaking by themselves. So that no one will be left out, they desperately need churches, groups, businesses and civic associations to either place giving trees in their buildings or "adopt" families for gift giving.

"I'm floored at how many gifts we need this year," said volunteer Sharon Maria Clayton of Pleasant View Estates. "And the families we're serving have two, three and four children — so it all adds up."

ONC is a grassroots, nonprofit organization comprised of moms, dads and teens who provide new toys and clothing to families in the Centreville, Chantilly and Clifton area. And this marks its 14th season.

Last year, ONC brought holiday joy to 525 families — including 1,500 children. But this time around, said toy coordinator Jean Novak, the need is even greater. "We have a number of [displaced, Hurricane] Katrina families this year," she said. "So the number of families we're helping has grown."

Clayton is the liaison between ONC and the churches, preschools and businesses who've agreed to have a giving tree on their premises. Trouble is, they'll only take a limited amount of the ornaments listing the presents needed for the children.

As a result, said Clayton, "I still have a good 600 ornament labels — each representing a gift for a particular child — and no place to put them. I work with seven churches, but we have so many more in this area. And we really need them to step up to the plate and help out."

The churches could also lend a hand by contributing presents to the cause, themselves. "I know they do a lot of other [altruistic] things," said Clayton. "But even if just 10 churches gave 10 gift certificates, that would be 100 gifts."

She's volunteered with ONC for eight years and can't help but care about all the parents dependent upon the organization for gifts for their children. "I go through each label, myself — before it's attached to an ornament to go on a giving tree — to see what these kids need," she said. "And it's just heartbreaking — the parents ask for things like socks, or tights for a little girl."

These are basic necessities, said Clayton, that "we, in this area, take for granted. But when Mom's having a hard time putting food on the table, clothes aren't a priority."

Noting that ONC provides gifts for children up to age 17, Executive Director Kelly Lavin said the group has to lay out more money, each year, "in part, because the families we're serving are aging. So now their gifts are more expensive — for example, teen clothing or a bigger-kid's bike."

CLOTHING, OR gift cards to places such as Target, Kohl's, Best Buy, Tower Records, Wal*Mart and Old Navy would make great presents for teen-agers.

"But that's not the typical donation people give, like dolls and teddy bears," said Lavin. "We still have lots of babies and children to give gifts to, but things have changed. In 1994, the children we helped were mostly ages 3-7. Now in 2005, they're mostly 11-14."

Tax-deductible, monetary contributions are also welcome. Send them to Our Neighbor's Child at P.O. Box 276, Centreville, VA 20120. Or e-mail the ONC treasurer at kklmo@aol.com. "Donations are definitely needed," said Lavin. "And every penny goes to the kids."

Clayton said any type of organization — garden clubs, bunco and bridge groups, etc. — could "adopt" a family to help at Christmas. "I'd even like to challenge people who are having holiday parties," she said. "In lieu of hostess gifts, have guests bring gift certificates that could be used for clothing, electronics or music CDs — and I'd be happy to pick them up."

Anyone who'd like to participate this way may contact her at 703-222-1187 or SharonMaria.Clayton@cox.net. She hopes to receive all donations by Dec. 12, or Dec. 14 at the latest. Whether a child is 12, 14 or 16, she said, "They're still kids and they need toys and clothes."

Kids talk to each other about what they got for Christmas. And, said Clayton, "For them to be able to walk into school after Christmas with something new on is really important." However, she added, it's also nice to give them something else, too, such as a gift card for a music CD.

"Everybody deserves a treat, and that might be the only special something they get," she explained. "And it's those memories that stay with them forever. Kids are still kids, no matter how old they are."

Although some people might say a 17-year-old could get a job and buy a CD for himself, Clayton said that's not always the case. For a family in dire economic straits — as are the ones on ONC's list — that teen-ager might already be working to help support his family by earning money toward food and rent.

Another way local residents may help is by participating in ONC's annual toy drive on Saturday, Dec. 3, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., in front of the Wal*Mart in the Fair Lakes Shopping Center. Students and Scouting groups will be outside the store with a decorated collection box in which people may drop presents.

"WE GIVE them a flyer with gift suggestions," said Virginia Run's Kathleen Esposito, who organizes the Scouts to help. "Or they can pick up an ornament from the tree just inside the front door."

Each ornament contains details about a specific toy to buy for a particular child, such as, "Family No. 378, boy, 6, truck." Then after purchasing it, people simply drop it into ONC's collection box.

Seven groups, equaling some 60 children, will take turns manning the toy drop and drumming up business. And Westfield High theater students will add to the festivities by dressing up as elves.

Brownie Troops 3327, 2224 and 1450, plus Girl Scout Troop 4258 — all of Virginia Run — will participate, as will a Boy Scout troop, a group of Westfield High students, and a group comprised of two girls from Stone Middle School and three girls from Westfield.

Esposito's worked with ONC for the past seven or eight years and has been in charge of the Wal*Mart toy drive for three or four of those years. "I was a Cub Scout leader for seven years and am now a Brownie leader, so I like to make sure the kids help out," she explained.

"They get really excited when people give them presents for the box," continued Esposito. "They all cheer, and it gets them into the holiday spirit. And they enjoy their hot chocolate, too, because it's always freezing out there."

She's in charge of Virginia Run Elementary's Community Outreach program, and volunteering with ONC is one more way she can help people in the local area. Said Esposito: "I just think Our Neighbor's Child is a great organization."

So does Lori Gibson, who coordinates the pick-up of donations collected by churches, preschools and businesses via the giving trees. She oversees the drivers who'll get them and take them to ONC's warehouse for sorting.

She has six volunteers who'll help, but she still needs five or six more drivers to lend a hand this Sunday, Dec. 4, and next Sunday, Dec. 11. Contact her at Ggiby5@msn.com.

Gibson, of Virginia Run, has been an ONC volunteer for eight years and says she keeps saying yes because of "the joy of knowing that we're helping kids who wouldn't normally have a very good Christmas."

"It's great to know they're going to have something under their tree," she said. "And I want to thank the community for their support over all the years, and for the donations they give us."

Toy coordinator Jean Novak, with ONC since 1998, is another longtime volunteer. Also from Virginia Run, she'll supervise the unloading of one or more trucks, Dec. 11, at the group's warehouse. Inside will be what's been collected from the various giving trees in the community.

THEN SHE and her helpers will sort the toys onto tables into categories, such as for boys, girls, preschoolers, teens, puzzles and books, sporting goods, and arts and crafts. From there, they'll further organize the tables into more specific designations, such as dolls, cars, stuffed animals, games, etc.

"That way, when the packagers come to get the items for each particular family, it's easier for them," said Novak. "They'll know where to go to find, for example, a G.I. Joe or a Barbie doll, and it's not just a big jumble."

She and helper Donna Ruland will organize the volunteers who'll sort it all, and they're planning to work from 4:30-6 p.m., but it could get done sooner, depending on how many people participate. It's also a great opportunity for students needing community-service hours for school.

To sign up and for directions to the site, contact Novak at jnovak5@verizon.net. "Last year, we had a wonderful turnout, and it only took a half hour to do," she said. "So we can use as many people as want to come."

Novak's forte is organizing, so she places numbers on the floor — one per recipient family — so the package sorters may put all of each family's gifts in one location. Likewise, presents brought in from giving trees for specific, numbered families may also be brought directly to their spots, rather than being placed on a table to sort.

"Then everything gets bagged and tagged," said Novak. "And after doing it all these years, it runs like a well-oiled machine. It doesn't seem like work when you're doing something that helps others. And it's really wonderful when people purchase a gift for a specific child so it's something that child wants."

"I'm blessed, and I feel like it's important to help those going through a difficult time," she said. "You never know when it could be you. And if everybody had this mindset, it would be a wonderful world we live in."

When she joined ONC, she said, there were less than 200 families needing help, so "we've grown tremendously. But the more people we can help, the better. I know people have already given to the tsunami- and hurricane-relief efforts, but I think the holidays bring out the best in people, so they do what they can — even if they've given before."

AND RECEIVING presents from ONC, added Clayton, allows the recipient parents to be Santa for their children since — as far as they know — the gifts came from mom and dad. "That's the real spirit of Christmas," she said.

Clayton believes this huge undertaking is founder Kelly Lavin's "calling." And, she said, "Because of her, all [the volunteers with ONC] have a way of contributing. It's a wonderful organization that I'm proud to be part of."