The smell of hamburgers drifts down the parking lot at Charles Houston Recreation Center on Sunday, Aug. 25. Inside the building, a long table is piled high with backpacks as "Celebration Time, Come On" plays over the speakers. Volunteers move down the table with open backpacks, and in a well-organized effort, volunteers on the other side of the table add composition books, pencils, crayons, notebook paper.
Willie Bailey, deputy fire chief for the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department, has organized the backpack event. He says, "We have 500 backpacks today for families in Alexandria. We have buses going around rounding up people. Tuesday we passed out 1,500 backpacks at Penn Daw Fire House on Hulvey Terrace for schools and shelters in Fairfax." Bailey says he has been organizing the backpack drive for about 15 years but has been doing the winter coat drive in the fall for about 25 years.
Bailey yells to the volunteers to be heard above the crowd, "OK folks; we're done with the elementary. Now for the high school. These are the bigger backpacks. So we got pens here. We got notebook supplies over here."
As families trail in through the side door, he instructs them, "To the bleachers." Bailey explains the families sit and wait on the bleachers for the process to begin. Then the youths can get a haircut and a backpack. He says, “Anyone who walks in the door can get a backpack. “
"We have free books at the table across the room. And there is a clown." McDonald's is giving out coupons, and a table is stacked with sports-style clothes in children's sizes.
Nehemiah Makins from D.C. sits patiently along the wall as Gary Bailey from Arlington cuts his hair for school. Bailey says, "I'm Willie's brother and I've been cutting hair for this event for 7-8 years." Meanwhile Razaan Yousif from Fairfax waits for the braids that Diretta Dunston explains will be the final hairstyle she has chosen. Yousif says, "I start school tomorrow."
Erica Jones and Jen Kenely, co-directors of Insp!relit, arrange "Stuart Little," "Charlotte's Web," "Harry Potter" and "Just Grace" and other free books in neat rows for children's selection later in the morning. Jones said this Alexandria- based organization wants to be sure that all children are surrounded by good books. Jones says most of the books are donated by people who don't need them anymore, "and we want to find homes for them."
Bailey likes to have the community see another side of the fire and rescue department and to get to know them as they give service to others beyond their regular work. And he says, "I live in Del Ray today but I grew up there when it was a different place. Before that I lived in a farmhouse with an outhouse and no running water. My parents didn't have much." So Bailey views his community efforts as giving back. "You know, to whom much is given, much is asked."