It was an inspirational scene at Leesburg’s Douglass School on Dec. 18.
Nearly 700 bags of clothes, toys, food and more were distributed to Loudoun County children and families – far more than expected – in a successful holiday drive sponsored by Loudoun County’s Mobile Hope in collaboration with volunteers from Douglass and Providence Academy.
The annual effort had its genesis in an aspiration voiced by Beverley McCauley’s son, Riley, who was recovering from a near-fatal head injury four years ago.
After a fall, the young McCauley was unresponsive for about six minutes as his life hung in the balance. He recalls bright lights, and God saying people were not doing enough for the homeless and needy.
Since then mother and son have been determined to give something back to the community.
“I feel bad for them because it’s winter and freezing, and I have all this stuff and they have nothing,” the young McCauley said.
His mother and a colleague teach a course called Kids with a Purpose at Providence, a private Christian school in Leesburg where her children are enrolled. The course teaches empathy and compassion, and includes a requirement of community service each month, she said. The results of that course were apparent as her children and other Providence students volunteered to assemble and distribute the holiday gift bags at Douglass.
The contents of the bags were carefully selected and size matched. They each included a coat and hat, scarf and gloves. socks, a toy, snacks, and a $25 gift certificate to Chick-fil-A.
Donna Fortier is the CEO and founder of Mobile Hope, which started five years ago when she was doing community service work for Inova Loudoun Hospital. She was moved by the number of homeless children in the county, left Inova and started a mobile bus approach to community service as a safety net to youth in need. It became Mobile Hope, a 501(c)(3) non-profit focused on helping children and young adults up to 24 years who are precariously housed, homeless, or at risk in Loudoun County.
Mobile Hope describes its scope as helping those without a fixed, night time residence, and Fortier said there are more children and young adults in need than most people in Loudoun realize. The organization has several paid staff and 300 or more volunteers who provide services year round.
“We’re one big dysfunctional family,” Fortier said of the youth and volunteers who have been involved with Mobile Hope.
“I love my school and they do so much with Mobile Hope,” said Rhonda Lough, the parent liaison at Douglass and a board member of Mobile Hope.
“Douglass kind of gets a bad rap in the community and it’s such a wonderful place,” she said of the school. “People automatically assume this is where the bad kids go, but that’s not necessarily true. It’s also where kids can come who don’t fit so well in bigger schools for one reason or another.”
Douglass enrolls about 200 students altogether, including those in middle and high school, as well as those seeking a GED. Class sizes are typically about ten students.
“We have homeless kids here at Douglass kids too, in that some don’t have a stable home life and others live house-to-house,” she said.
Lough said that a lot of the children would never have received gifts, and that this year’s effort has been more successful than the one last year in Ashburn.
Dave Herlihy, a volunteer at Douglass who works with at risk teens nearing the end of high school, said that his program started with just him and a few students and has expanded to five volunteers and 20 students. He and his colleagues help students prepare for real world experiences, including finding a job. He’s doing some of the same kind of work for Mobile Hope.
Cassandra McCauley, 10, said she was put in 11 foster homes before being adopted when she was four. “It’s really makes me happy to give things to other people, instead of getting,” she said.
Bags of necessities were not the only donated items being handed out. Zachary Prache, a ninth grader attending Thomas Jefferson High School, raised $40,000 to buy 200 kindles and accessories to give needy children and youth. Prache also downloaded about 20 books for each one, basing his selection on grade levels, then stood at a table to meet each child and hand them out.
“Its kind of conflicting, I felt so bad for these kids, but it makes me feel good to give them something, and books to me were like an escape. You may have just had a really terrible day at school but you can just come home and get lost in it,” he said.
Dozens of volunteers participated in the Douglass event, and their uplifting message was uniform.
“Today is an opportunity for all of us who have something to give back to others. Somebody will leave here touched, and that will make a difference,” Beverley McCauley said.