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Angels Spread Christmas Cheer

Volunteers wrap hundreds of presents for Angels of Mercy Christmas program.

Last Monday, Jay Edwards and Marian Chirichella allotted four hours for their annual Angels of Mercy Gift-Wrapping Extravaganza — but the couple was blown away when all of the presents were wrapped, and all the stockings stuffed, in just two short hours.

"I can't believe it," said Chirichella, president of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 270 in McLean, and co-founder of the Angels of Mercy program. "We had 35 people show up — some people from the McLean community, some women from the Woman's Club of McLean, and some people from the Legion. It was wonderful."

Chirichella and her husband Jay Edwards — who is commander of American Legion Post 270 in McLean — founded the Angels of Mercy program in 2003, after volunteering with the American Red Cross and visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The couple was shocked to discover that American soldiers were receiving little support, and they decided to use their expertise and community connections to do what they could to help.

The two set to work, giving speeches in the community, collecting donations and securing press coverage. The response was overwhelming, and the Angels of Mercy program has continued to send food, clothing and supplies to U.S. troops in the Middle East for the last three years.

In addition, the Angels of Mercy program has included an annual Christmas project in which hundreds of presents are purchased and personally distributed to recovering military and their families unable to make it home for the holidays, to men, women and children recovering in the wards at Walter Reed, and to the attendees of the Christmas Day brunch at Walter Reed. The program also sends hundred of other presents to patients and staff at Combat Support Hospitals in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to U.S. military supporting America's OIF/OEF from Kuwait and Qatar at Forward Operating Base Q-West.

CHIRICHELLA AND EDWARDS personally choose and purchase the Christmas gifts, and then ask the community for help with the wrapping, packing and shipping. On the morning of Monday, Nov. 27, volunteers gathered at American Legion Post 270 in McLean and quickly wrapped more than 200 presents, and stuffed more than 200 Christmas stockings.

"We sent all games to Iraq, plus we did some special things to bring them a little piece of home," said Chirichella. "So we sent them gingerbread houses that they can make, and we included decorative American flags ... we tried to give them shared items as well as the personal stuff."

Chirichella said she and her husband acquired most of this year's presents in two days of intense power shopping. She added that Angels of Mercy receives donations all year long, some of which are used for the Christmas project.

McLean resident Lucy Chatelain joined the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 270 four years ago, and has been a volunteer at all three of the Angels of Mercy Gift-Wrapping events.

"I hope to God that we don't have to do it again next year ... although we say that every year," said Chatelain.

She said she enjoys wrapping the presents because it makes her feel good to do something for America's troops.

"The sense of camaraderie is great fun, but it also gives you a wonderful feeling — today I accomplished something," she said.

Chatelain's friend Jim Mikesell is not part of the military, but volunteered at both last year's wrapping party and this year's.

"I think it's just a very nice thing to do, and I think what the Legion does here is great, so if I can be a small part of it I'm more than willing to pitch in," said Mikesell, who lives in McLean.

BOTH Chirichella and Edwards were thrilled with the high volunteer turnout.

"It was nice to have a true cross-cut of the community," said Chirichella. "It was nice for the whole community to say 'yeah we do care, and yeah we want to help,' and I think that people really enjoyed it. It has become a real social event."

Edwards said some of the wrapping volunteers also offered to help with other projects.

"On Christmas morning I go over and serve brunch and pass out 120 games to families at Walter Reed and it's a big job for one person, but I had two families volunteer to help me this year," said Edwards.

After the first of the year, the Angels of Mercy program will continue to send clothes and supplies to various U.S. military posts in the Middle East.

"One of these remote locations is very large and they have a lot of needs, so we're going to be supporting them throughout the year," said Chirichella.