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Neighbors Helping Neighbors

Lorton Community Action Center hopes a growing population will mean more donations, help for needy families.

Walking up the narrow staircase to her office, Anda Ostergard apologized for the clutter.

"We've already started taking donations for our back-to-school drive," she said, stepping over backpacks and plastic bags filled with binders, notebooks and pencils.

As director of community relations for the Lorton Community Action Center, Ostergard is happy to have to walk carefully around her office, which itself is filled with toys, games and more school supplies. After all, an office filled with items to give to needy families shows that the community at large is willing to help.

For over 30 years, the Lorton Community Action Center has been giving out food, emergency assistance and offering programs to the Lorton community, from Mason Neck to Route 123. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, hundreds of baskets of food are collected and distributed to families, along with small gifts to ensure a happy holiday.

"We have volunteers here every day of the week, picking up food for our pantry or putting food donations away," Ostergard said, providing for the more than 50 families who come to LCAC for food weekly.

In the 2004-05 fiscal year, more than 1,606 people received some form of assistance from LCAC, according to the group's Web site.

"Up to 70 of the people we help get food assistance each week," Ostergard said.

Between 60-70 percent of people who receive help from LACA are employed, and up to 40 of those families contain someone with developmental disabilities in some way, she said. On July 1 of each year, clients must renew their paperwork for the new fiscal year, detailing how many people live in their homes, their ages, income and address to make sure that they are living in the Lorton area.

THE MAIN OFFICE for LCAC is located in a small, two-story house next to the Lorton Library on Richmond Highway, cramped quarters that make it difficult to see clients in absolute privacy, Ostergard said. Clients who receive weekly food assistance are required to make appointments to meet with counselors every week to help teach responsibility, she said.

Just down the road, in Williamsburg Plaza, three storefronts are rented out to provide space for after-school activities for children, a thrift store and a computer learning center.

For several years now, Katrina Hamlett has been the director of the LCAC's Resource Center, which gives children a place to go after school to watch movies, play games and avoid being sent to empty homes. During the summer, she runs a daytime summer camp for the same children she sees during the school year.

"We haven't been able to go outside to play because of all the rain we've had, so we've been playing board games, card games and ping pong," she said in the Resource Center, a brightly painted room filled with books, movies and large, comfortable-looking couches.

During the summer camp, the children perform small service projects, like going to Meadowood Farm, a park managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and doing work there. In addition, she takes the children on field trips to go fishing or to amusement parks.

"On average, I'll have between 25 and 30 kids a day. Some are here for 20 minutes, others are here from when we open at 12:30 p.m. until we close at 6 p.m.," she said.

"For some children, this is the only summer program they have," Ostergard said.

Next to the Resource Center is the Act II Thrift Store, owned by LCAC and frequented by Lorton residents. Revenue from the store goes to support the LCAC, which received $144,137 from sales to the public in Fiscal Year 2004-2005, or 26 percent of its income.

The third storefront is the Computer Learning Center, in which adults can learn how to type, prepare resumes and apply for jobs, Ostergard said.

LCAC pays about $30,000 each year to rent the three facilities, said executive director the Rev. Stephen E. Rorke, who has been with the center for four years.

"The commitment from this community ... is exciting to see," Rorke said. "Lorton has a lot of community but it's not so big that it's unmanageable. It's a great place for a nonprofit."

AS THE POPULATION of Lorton continues to grow, so does the need for assistance and the Center's reliance on donations. During the summer months, the food pantry in the basement, where canned goods are stored, becomes sparse, drained by families whose children are home during the day and do not receive the lunches they were getting at school.

"Hopefully, as we reach out to more people and more people find out about us, we'll get more help," Rorke said. "There are opportunities here for community service for high school students too, so we're offering kids a chance to help their neighbors."

Two large fund raisers are scheduled each year to benefit LCAC, including the annual Golf Classic, which raised over $12,000 in 2006, up from $7,000 in 2005, Ostergard said. The next fund raiser is the Fall Fest Gala, which will be at a home in Mason Neck on Saturday, Sept. 30.

The evening features a catered dinner along with live and silent auctions, filled with donations ranging from vacations and themed dinners to gift cards to Starbucks for coffee.

"One year, a 7-Eleven gave us 100 Slurpees and coffee to auction off," Rorke said. "That has to be my favorite donation."

Over 200 items were up for bid last year, Ostergard said.

Before organizers can turn their full attention to the gala, however, they must first address the need for back to school supplies and canned food donations.

"We get produce and fresh food from grocery stores and schools and scouts groups have canned food drives during the year, but donations drop off during the summer," Ostergard said.

As for back-to-school needs, LCAC receives lists of school supplies from each of the schools in the Lorton area, which can cost up to $100 per child. In the back-to-school kits, each child receives all the school supplies they need, along with a voucher for a pair of shoes at Payless.

"Once we're done with that, we'll start on Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets," Ostergard said.

Looking to the future, Rorke and Ostergard said they hope to eventually move into a new facility, proposed to be built next to the Lorton Library, which would house the main office in addition to the Resource Center, Thrift Store and Computer Learning Center.

"I'm afraid that because the need has grown, the scope and size of the building we'd need is bigger than what we've planned for," Rorke said. No timeline exists for construction of a new building, but it is listed on Fairfax County's Capital Improvements Plan.

"It's the squeaky wheel syndrome," Ostergard said of their plans to get the new facility. "This building is in terrible shape."

Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said a new building was included on the county's Capital Improvment Plan this year.

"That was the hard part," Hyland said. However, inclusion on the CIP doesn't mean the new building will happen any time soon.

"It might still be five or six years away, we need to have the money first," he said.