For firefighters like Troy Gittings, September brings the annual Fill the Boot fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Until 2013, that meant standing on street corners across Loudoun County, holding out firefighter boots to solicit donations from drivers stopped at intersections. Funds went to events like the MDA Summer Camp for children, many of whom have crippling muscular disorders. Many firefighters volunteered at the camp themselves.
“That’s what drives a lot of our members. They go and see the kids at camp and see how their drive is to just live, let alone do things we take for granted,” Gittings said. “Things like that are what drives us to go out in the heat and make sure that we try our best to get as much as we can for this drive.”
Standing on the street corners had been a highly successful model in Loudoun until three years ago. This year, though fundraising efforts increased, results were still far less than when street corner solicitation by firefighters was permitted by Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors.
In March 2013, the Board passed an ordinance banning panhandling as a safety measure and ostensibly to curtail an influx of people loitering on street corners trying to solicit money for themselves or dubious causes. This also meant fundraisers like county firefighters couldn’t stand on the corners.
“Everybody is still trying to donate, everybody is trying to make this drive successful because it means a lot for the kids,” Gittings said. With decreased visibility though, he said the group can’t raise nearly as much money for MDA.
In years prior to the 2013 ordinance, Loudoun firefighters were raising $100,000 during their week-long fall campaign. In 2015, they raised just $20,000. This year, with increased support and new donation locations like partner churches and grocery stores, county firefighters raised $24,667, a number that will rise once the counting of a five-gallon bucket of coins is completed.
This past week Fairfax County firefighters were soliciting donations on the street corners of their county, including from commuters passing to and from Loudoun County at the intersection of Rt. 7 and Dranesville Rd, feet from the county line.
“When I see Fairfax County on the third or fourth day of collection up to almost $400,000, it sort of pales,” said Loudoun’s Fire Chief W. Keith Brower, Jr.
“Loudoun is a player in Northern Virginia and competition is just like everything else,” he added. “Everyone wants a good football team. Everyone wants what’s best in their community. Our firefighters view that as a competition and a matter of pride if nothing else, so they want to do more.”
The County has a long history of supporting the MDA drive. IAFF Local 3756, along with Loudoun County Fire and Rescue, have partnered with MDA for nearly two decades, helping adults, children and families with events such as this annual fundraiser. All monies go directly to the MDA of the greater DC area.
The MDA uses the money to help more than 1,200 people with muscular disorders locally, including an estimated 85 in Loudoun County. The annual partnership with area firefighters brings in more than $1 million annually, with funds dispersed for such things as summer camps for children, a loan closet with wheel chairs and support braces, as well as doctor visits. Funds also go to research, and MDA nationally contributes around $75,000 for this purpose every day. The group hopes to double that amount by 2020, MDA Executive Director Tiffany Tillotson said, and any cuts at any level make it harder to achieve their goals.
“We’re going to adapt and overcome any challenges we have,” said firefighter spokesperson Laura Reinhart. “Ultimately we want everyone to be safe and we want it to be a successful campaign. If it’s a safety issue and that’s the reason [for curtailing street-side solicitation], we definitely want to accommodate the ordinance and we just have to get a little bit more creative.”
Three years ago, multiple Board members said on record they received regular complaints about panhandlers in intersections, particularly at busy crossings like the intersection of Nokes Blvd. and Atlantic Blvd., Waxpool Rd. and Pacific Blvd., as well as Rt. 7 and Ashburn Village Blvd. Individuals from outside the county and even outside the state were said to be loitering, at times stepping out into traffic or turn lanes. To resolve this, the board passed the resolution eliminating panhandling in the county by a vote of 9-0. The Town of Leesburg followed suit with a similar ordinance.
Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), who voted for the resolution in 2013, said the ban has resolved that problem.
“The one thing I personally don’t want to do is go back to the old ways,” Buona said. “If an accident happens I don’t want to be responsible for it, so by taking these measures we have proactively and preventivley tried to stop a safety hazard. I empathize with the firefighters. I really do. I know this has hurt their fundraising efforts. But at the same time, we can’t have this kind of public safety issue going on either. That’s the trade off,” he added.
Buona said supervisors talked at length about way to pass this ordinance while still allowing the firefighters to do fundraising, potentially by allowing permits on a case-by-case basis. In 2013, then county attorney Jack Roberts said that Virginia and possibly federal law precluded the board form giving permits to some groups while denying them to others. It came down to either allowing everyone on the streets or allowing no one.
Current county attorney Leo Rogers agrees with his predecessor that county or state governments can’t discriminate on which groups or individuals are panhandling on street corners. Rogers said the board was motivated by prioritizing the public’s safety around dangerous intersections.
“It’s one thing to allow somebody to express their speech,” Rogers said. “It’s another thing to have traffic accidents or have people get hurt.”
For 2017 and beyond, firefighters are working on ways to get back on the street corners. Gittings says they have talked with several board members who weren’t on the previous board to try to make changes to the law. He said the group is taking its time trying to go through the proper channels to make sure everything is done properly, and points to Fairfax and Prince William County, which reversed its panhandling ordinance.
Board members are scheduled take up an initiative in October to explore exceptions to the county ordinance that would allow panhandling at certain intersections that pose minimal safety risks, according to Rogers.
Brower said Board members are doing more each year to help, including by voicing their support publicly and promoting the MDA cause on their web sites. He credits them reaching out to businesses in their districts to allow firefighters to fund raise on their property. He also said firefighters are coming up with new ideas, like a year-long promotion where Loudoun residents wanting to support MDA can contribute at any time.
“I think a lot depends on if they’re able to achieve success doing it in parking lots and things like that. I can’t speak for the board and I can’t speak for the county attorney, but I think it’s important to keep the dialogue going. Where it ultimately lands I wouldn’t have a clue.” Brower said.
Regardless of any changes, in 2017 firefighters will again continue to tend boots at partner locations across the county this month. Firefighters will also man street corners in smaller, less-trafficked towns, which are not subject to the county ordinance, including Hamilton, Round Hill, Middleburg and Lovettsville, trying once again to raise as much as they can for the beneficiaries of the MDA.
“They’re one of our best partners and we can’t do it without them,” Tillotson said. “Every dollar counts.”