Billy Dean assumed they must be in trouble. He, all his fifth-grade classmates, and every other student in the main building of Mount Vernon Woods had been lined up in the hallway for minutes on end, waiting for permission to enter their classrooms, the doors of which were closed and the windows obscured with pieces of paper.
His classmate John Nejia was more optimistic. “I thought it would be a parade,” he said.
It was backpacks. On Nov. 30, volunteers with the organization Volunteer Fairfax placed a backpack on the desk of every student in four Fairfax County schools, including Mount Vernon Woods. On Dec. 1, 25 volunteers were on hand as the students discovered the unexpected gifts, which included crayons and pads of paper, playing cards, inflatable balls, foam gliders, magazines and books.
This is the fourth year that Volunteer Fairfax has distributed gifts at schools, according to Emily Gibbs, Training and Special events Coordinator with Volunteer Fairfax. Until this year, they called it “A Visit From Saint Nicholas.” As the name implied, it focused on the joy of receiving something from a generous benefactor. This year, the message was expanded. Relabeled, “A Celebration of Giving and Receiving,” Volunteer Fairfax asked its volunteers to talk to the gift recipients about their own power to give someone else the same good feelings.
“The idea is learning about how nice is it to receive something,” said Volunteer Fairfax spokesman Cori Bassett. “So how great would it be to give someone that feeling, that warm and fuzzy feeling that someone is thinking about you, that someone cares about you?”
Volunteer Fairfax sent applications for the “Celebration” event to the 16 Fairfax County Public Schools with more than 50 percent of students receiving free or reduced price lunch, the standard measure of poverty in schools. Sixteen schools replied, and four were accepted: Mount Vernon Woods, Braddock in Annandale, Dogwood in Reston, and Lynbrook in Springfield.
AS BILLY DEAN, JOHN NEJIA and their classmates scattered decorative gold foil and spread the contents of their bags across their desks, stopping frequently to show off books and figurines to their friends, volunteer Joy Vaeth asked them how they could keep the good karma flowing.
“Has anyone done anything where they’ve been sharing recently?” she asked. The students answered eagerly, if vaguely, expressing the general desire to help people who needed whose need was greater than their own.
In another classroom, Vaeth held up a copy of “Ranger Rick,” the children’s magazine of the World Wildlife Foundation, which every student had received and asked them whether they ever pick up garbage they see lying on the ground. “Ranger Rick would probably really, really like that.” Vaeth was one of 20 volunteers from Cardinal Bank who came to Mount Vernon Woods that morning. There were about 25 volunteers there in total, according to Gibbs.
“As a bank, we’re really trying to become more involved in the community,” Vaeith explained. Last time she volunteered for Volunteer Fairfax, she was doing “crowd control” among the inflatable bouncing castles at the Celebrate Fairfax festival. “This is more enjoyable. It’s great talking to the kids and seeing how excited they are to get a bag of gifts.”
“It’s nice to make them feel that they’re special,” added Vaeth’s coworker Abeba Ghebremedhi.
“I think the kids are really grateful here,” said substitute teacher Victoria Mac. “They don’t take anything for granted.” She added that as a substitute teacher, she has flexible choices about where she will work. “I come here most often. That should tell you something.” As she spoke, fifth-grade student Brianna Stokes walked behind her desk wrapped her arms around her teacher’s neck. Mac said the discipline of Mount Vernon Woods’ students is the prime reason she favors the school. “For a substitute, discipline is everything.”
But that morning, she relaxed it for a few minutes as her students to browsed their new books and compared gifts.
Billy and John stood in the back of the class, doing fly-bys with their Styrofoam jets. Billy was happy there was no discipline entailed in the morning’s surprise. John said he wasn’t even disappointed by the lack of a parade. “This is better.”