He may wear the uniform of a professional firefighter. He may perform the tasks of a professional firefighter. But to needy children up and down the Route 1 corridor, throughout Fairfax County and within the City of Alexandria, come December he is the Santa Claus that comes in a big red truck instead of a sleigh.
His name is Willie F. Bailey, Master Technician Willie F. Bailey, Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department's 2006 Career Firefighter of the Year. That honor "the most prestigious the department can bestow upon one of its own" was officially awarded to Bailey Aug. 30 during a ceremony at department headquarters in Fairfax City.
A 15-year veteran of the Fire Department, currently assigned to Woodlawn Station 24, B-Shift, Bailey initiated the adopt-a-family community toy drive for needy children and their families in the Gum Springs area of southeastern Fairfax County eight holiday seasons ago. That first year toys were collected for 40 children. It provided at least one toy for each child on Christmas morning.
Last year, more than 4,000 children throughout the county received gifts as a result of his efforts, plus two tractor-trailer loads to aid the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots drive, as well as aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Over the past eight seasons the program has aided 1,500 families and 20,000 children.
"Every fire department in this entire region has piggybacked off Willie's toy drive," said Captain Richard A. Sweatt, Equal Employment Opportunity, Affirmative Action Officer for the department. "This award is all about being a community servant. And Willie exemplifies that quality."
In addition to partnering with Toys for Tots in 2005, Bailey's toy drive also partners with businesses, faith groups, and public schools in Alexandria and Fairfax County. Representatives of several of the business partnership were on hand to honor Bailey at the awards ceremony.
CAPTAIN CLAYTON THOMPSON JR., station commander, Station 37, A-Shift, has known Bailey since he was 14 years old, prior to when he played basketball for T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. "Before the official toy drive, Willie would collect toys for needy kids on his own. He doesn't ask for help. You have to give him help," Thompson told the overflow crowd gathered in the Massey Building auditorium.
A native Alexandrian, single parent, and U.S. Army reservist, Bailey is a resident of Del Ray. He is also active in aiding Alexandria children during the holidays and working with Alexandria schools. One of those attending the ceremony was Associate Superintendent of Alexandria Public Schools John Porter.
In addition to performing his professional duties, Bailey is active in the Progress Firefighters Association, serves as a peer fitness counselor, and is a founding member of Fire and Rescue Support Team (FiRST) program. The latter assist firefighters and their families during an emergency or crisis.
His gift giving is not limited to Christmas. At Easter each year he assists children in making and filling Easter baskets that are distributed to elderly residents of assisted living facilities in southeast Fairfax County. He also collects and distributes holiday gifts for entire needy families in the form of books, gifts, and articles of clothing.
"Willie is a person who embraces our core values and lives by those values everyday. We all need examples like Willie in our lives everyday," said Fairfax County & Rescue Department Chief Michael P. Neuhard. "I appreciate everyone who has loaned him to us."
Bailey's toy drive now rivals some of the national campaigns, according to Neuhard, a 1992 recipient of Firefighter of the Year Award prior to being named Chief. Fairfax County citizens and business throughout the County and within Alexandria have donated more gifts to Bailey's drive than any other, he told the audience.
"You stand as a very tall representative of the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department," Neuhard said as he presented Bailey with the symbolic leather firefighter helmet given to each Firefighter of the Year Award recipient. Bailey is the 22nd since the program was initiated in 1985.
As a special recognition to Bailey, Neuhard unveiled a framed montage of cards, letters and drawings sent to the department by children who have benefitted from Bailey's efforts over the years. He was also presented with the Firefighter of The Year pin and an anonymous gift of a $200 saving bond.
That anonymous gift arrives at Fire Department headquarters each year to be presented to the person being honored, according to Neuhard. "We honestly do not know who makes this gift. But, if you are sitting out there in the audience, we sincerely thank you," he said.
ACKNOWLEDGING THE HONOR, Bailey said, "I'm accepting this award for all those who have given us help over the years. It's great to have your whole chain of command behind you. There have been times I have actually sat down and cried over all the help we have received."
Recognizing those who have supported his, the Progressive Firefighters, and the department's efforts, Bailey said, "There are many people who have nothing to do with the Fire Department who help us every year. It's also a blessing to know we have so many good people in the department. I thank God for putting me in the position to accept this award."
In closing the ceremony, Deputy Chief Dereck A. Baker, said, "I'm especially glad to see Willie named Firefighter of The Year because he's one of my guys. Just keep doing what you have been doing Willie and thank you."
Following the ceremony the department's many graduates of T.C. Williams High School joined with Bailey and Porter, former T.C. Williams principal, for a group picture. The invocation was offered by department Chaplain Grant McIntosh.