When Paula Pritchard and her husband drove by Muna Saloman's Burke apartment in 1998 to hand over some utility items for free, Saloman, 42, a just-arrived immigrant from Iraq, thought God had sent them. She was so impressed by the Pritchards' visit that she joined Burke CARES, the volunteer organization for which Paula Pritchard serves as executive director.
Together with Saloman and other volunteers, Pritchard has been successful in making Burke Community Action Resources for Empowerment and Support, Inc. (Burke CARES) a household name.
"Whenever a family moves in the Burke area and seeks some support, Burke CARES is the first organization to reach them for any help they may need," Saloman said.
Yvonne Brown, another of Burke CARES' beneficiaries, said these types of projects should be expanded to other communities where people on the move are in the dire need of support until they are settled.
"This is helpful for low-income groups and the people who are disadvantaged," said Brown. She added that Burke CARES also offers an opportunity for local people to volunteer to help their neighbors.
"No one can imagine how fortunate I feel when I am able to help the needy," said Pritchard, a mother of two who works part-time at the Inova Emergency Care Center of Fairfax.
When asked what inspired her to become involved in these types of social services, Pritchard replied that it was in her genes. "My parents loved it," she said. "I am so lucky that my husband is also a social worker."
IT WAS WHILE Pritchard was trying to support the refugees from Kosovo during the late 1990s that she found her way to Burke CARES. "While supporting them, I came across this organization which Sara and Mike Looney had established in 1996," she said.
After the founding director's family moved away in 2000, the organization ran for four years under the aegis of its founding member Shannon Mikush. "Because Pritchard has been a great social worker, I felt I should give the responsibility of running the institution to her," said Mikush, who is currently the treasurer of Burke CARES.
Based on a simple theory of helping the needy‚ Burke CARES' Virtual Warehouse project connects people's donations with people who need them. "This project works as a resource person between the givers and takers," said Pritchard.
"People willing to donate their products call the Virtual Warehouse," she said. "They give their name and phone number and describe the item they have to donate. They also agree to hold onto the item for at least two weeks, to give us time to find a household that needs the item."
Those who need an item call the Virtual Warehouse, give their name and phone number and describe what they need. Burke CARES then matches an item needed with an item available.
"We call the two people and notify them," said Pritchard. "If they can make the transfer themselves, they do. If they need help moving the item from one household to the other, we try to help them move it. In this way, we become volunteer brokers between them."
According to Pritchard, dozens of families have benefited from the project and the list is on the rise. In addition, Burke CARES' influence is not limited to the Burke area. Pritchard said that the organization was proud to help settle a couple of families that had moved to Northern Virginia from the areas of Louisiana affected by Hurricane Katrina.
"All that would have been impossible if the Burke area residents were unsupportive," she said. "I feel lucky that I am in a wonderful community which feels pride in helping others."
Other Burke CARES projects include a clothing closet for women and men, computer training, English as a second language classes, resume writing assistance for employment application and a medical and dental needs task force.
"The main idea of all these is to try to make the newcomers feel comfortable while they settle in a new place," Pritchard said. "It may sound exaggerated, but I believe that the people who get support will one day be ready for supporting others. This exchange of help is what humanity is."
Talking about the organization's future plans, Pritchard said Burke CARES intends to introduce more projects as long as current projects continue to be successful. "We are working for a computer database and resource mobilization so that it could be more accessible to the people for self service and our role could be minimized," she said.