A Fairfax County Police Officer and a youngster head to the bus after picking up her toys.
As the first bus prepared to unload Monday morning, Battalion Chief Will Bailey went over the instructions one last time.
“Okay remember: One toy! One stuffed animal! One or two books!” Bailey shouted to the dozens of volunteers.
And then it began. One by one, the kids were offloaded and matched with a volunteer, and the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s annual toy distribution event was underway inside the Penn Daw Fire Station. Bus after bus of children would make their way through the firehouse as the morning wore on. After that, representatives from schools showed up to pick up toys, coats and bicycles to distribute to older kids.
When it was all said and done, more than 3,000 toys, 600 coats and 400 books had been given away. The recipients were approximately 82 schools, shelters and non-profits in the area.
For nearly two decades the toy giveaway has been organized by Bailey. It has evolved from giving away a few trash bags full of toys to kids at a local homeless shelter to the massive event that brings in thousands of dollars worth of donations from local businesses. It’s gotten so big that it’s outgrown two fire stations — Woodlawn and Mount Vernon — and now also serves less fortunate children beyond the Richmond Highway area.
“It seems to grow every year,” said George Moore, a firefighter who is Bailey’s right-hand man, coordinating the setup and cleanup, and also lifting nearly every child off and back on to the buses. “It just gets bigger and bigger.”
While the event is put together by the fire department, they get plenty of help from other local agencies. The Fairfax County Police, the Virginia State Police, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Department, the Alexandria Police and the FBI all had volunteers on hand to escort the children through the firehouse. Bailey has made an effort to include local law enforcement in the event as a way to improve relations with the local community.
“It allows the kids to see them in a different light,” Bailey said.
Besides law enforcement, other groups were also on hand to lend a helping hand. Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity alumni were on hand, as were student government members from Forestdale Elementary School in Springfield, which participated for the first time this year.
The Fairfax County Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority donated the bags used by the children to hold their new toys, and their volunteers handed out toys and escorted the youngsters around the station.
Kia Davis, the group’s holiday event coordinator, has been doing this for six years. The Delta Sigma Thetas have focused on making sure there’s enough gifts for teenage girls, who in the past have sometimes received less donations than other groups of children, Davis said.
“We always look forward to coming out every year,” said Davis.
An atmosphere of family
Picking presents is the main part of the event, but giving the children attention and making them as comfortable is another focus.
Each child is matched with a volunteer who helps them around the firehouse. After picking up their presents and books, kids were able to meet Santa Claus and his elf assistant. And on the way back to the bus the children had a chance to interact with dogs from Caring Angels Therapy Dogs.
Dave Saunders, a 17-year veteran of the department, played Santa. His 14-year-old son, Hunter, is his elf. Hunter Saunders came up with the idea of helping other kids after spending time in children’s hospitals while battling an illness when he was younger. Together the father and son started a business called Santa Department 25, performing at events throughout the year.
For George Moore, the event has a bittersweet familial tie. A 20-year veteran of the department, he’s been working with Bailey since the beginning. For many of those years, George’s son, Chase, was by his side.
A banner honor Chase Moore, the son of firefighter George Moore.
Chase Moore had autism, and according to George Moore, the gift giveaway was something he always looked forward to. The father and son would buy toys together each year and drop them off at the firehouse.
“We’d go shopping, and he loved to shop,” Moore said of his son. “He would grab like 10 boxes of toys and just throw them in the cart. That was his thrill.”
Chase Moore passed away in 2015. On Monday, Bailey and his fellow firefighters unveiled a banner honoring his son prior to the start of the giveaway, and Moore praised both the father and son for the devotion to others..
Bailey also revealed that Moore had donated thousands of dollars worth of toys over the years out of his own pocket, and never told anyone.
“Nobody knew, until now. Until Will said something,” Moore said. “We’d spend a couple thousands dollars just out of my own pocket. We’d just donate them. Throw them downstairs [in the fire station]. Nobody knew.”