Making Christmas happen for local families in need takes months of preparation, hundreds of volunteers and thousands of donations. And two very dedicated couples are at the heart of efforts to make the season bright for every kid in Loudoun.
Salvation Army captains Pradeep and Priscilla Ramaji run that organization’s beloved Angel Tree and Holiday Toy Shop programs in Loudoun, while Rita Sartori and her husband Frank Holtz coordinate Loudoun’s massive Toys for Tots program.
Last week, things were buzzing at the Salvation Army’s distribution center in Leesburg and Toys for Tots sorting center in Ashburn, the culmination of months of hard work by organizers and their teams of volunteers. On Dec. 13 and 14, the first phase of the Salvation Army’s two-pronged approach to serving Loudoun children—the Angel Tree program—was in full swing.
For this effort, hundreds of families pre-register in the fall and provide child-specific wish lists. The Salvation Army makes individual tags with specific wish lists, and each child is “adopted” in advance by local businesses, churches and individuals who purchase clothing and toys just for them.
“It involves the community in a direct way and allows people to become personally involved,” said Priscilla Ramaji, who coordinates the Angel Tree program.
And many donors love to go big, she said, with donations including ride-on toys, dollhouses and dozens of brand new bikes. On the first day of distribution last Friday, the donated warehouse space in the former Loudoun Motorsports space on Catoctin Circle was jumping with clients and volunteers bringing out bags of toys and wheeling out shiny bikes. And wish lists didn’t just include toys—the Leesburg space was also full of new car seats and high chairs for the younger set. Ramaji says the Angel Tree program served 635 families with about 1,400 children this year.
Once the Angel Tree gifts were distributed last week, the Ramajis and their team of volunteers restocked and reopened Tuesday with phase two: the Holiday Toy Shop for families who weren’t able to meet the Angel Tree Registration deadline in October but still need help buying gifts for their children. Families are able to register closer to the date for the toy shop, and while there are no personalized wish lists, parents can choose up to five toys per child.
For Ramaji, making sure that every child wakes up receiving something special is essential.
“Childhood is very precious,” she said. “We’re helping them to make good memories, and we’re thankful to the donors.”
While individuals, businesses and organizations take the lead in the Angel Tree program, the primary donor for the Holiday Toy Shop program is another big player on Loudoun’s holiday giving scene: the Toys for Tots program organized by Loudoun’s Marine Corps League Detachment 1205 and coordinated by Sartori and Holtz, a retired U.S. Marine.
Working with partners including area businesses and fire and rescue companies, Toys for Tots collects tens of thousands of toys then works with a network of partners—including the Salvation Army—to distribute the toys to families. A few years ago, Toys for Tots shifted its model from direct distribution to families to working with partner nonprofits including Mobile Hope, LINK Against Hunger, and Community Empowerment Northern Virginia along with churches and other social services organizations.
“Since the organizations work with them year round they know the families,” Sartori said.
Last Thursday, Toys for Tots was bustling on one of its busiest and most exciting days: toy receiving day, when fire and rescue companies from around the county bring donations to the program’s donated warehouse space for sorting, filling three ambulances, an emergency bus and four trailers packed to the brim.
“They come and bring copious amounts of toys,” Sartori said. “It’s a beautiful day for us.”
For Sartori and Holtz, the challenge each year is finding 10,000 to 12,000 square feet of warehouse space for sorting and distribution. And this year, Ashburn-based Sabey Data Centers stepped up with donated space.
Sabey’s business development manager and Toys for Tots point of contact Michael Whitlock also organized a special visit from former Washington Redskins running back Ricky Ervins on toy receiving day. Ervins spent time with volunteers and donated a signed football that will go to Boulder Crest Retreat.
Both Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army rely heavily on support from local businesses, organizers say. Sterling-based My Guys Moving donated trucks and drivers for the Angel Tree program, and the Salvation Army’s distribution space was donated by Ketterman’s Jewelers, which bought the Loudoun Motorsports building last year. Next door neighbor Summit Community Bank offered parking help and hot drinks and snacks to shoppers.
Ramaji said area businesses are also key players in the Angel Tree program, with many companies adopting multiple families and some, including Inova Loudoun Hospital and Catoctin School of Music, taking on up to 100 children.
Participating in the program is also meaningful for donors, who often volunteer their time in addition to buying gifts.
“Our involvement extends from who we are—a community hospital,” said Debbie Carlton Inova Loudoun’s chaplaincy manager. “We care deeply about our community and this opportunity allows us to partner with the Salvation Army to make an impact in the community we are proud to serve and call home. … It is a beautiful experience and we receive much more than we give.”
Learn about volunteering or sponsoring a child next year through the Salvation Army at virginiasalvationarmy.org/loudouncountyvacorps.
Find out about hosting a collection location next year at loudounmarines.org/toys-for-tots.