No Shortage of Strangers for a Good Cause

Scores Respond to Listing to Share a Different Kind of Christmas

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008; Page A01

In Craigslist's random ocean of housing swaps, motorcycles for sale and vegan discussion forums, a tiny tide began a few days ago with these words: "Want to volunteer with me on Christmas in D.C.?"

With that, Sally Smith, a 27-year-old Texan who this year for the first time couldn't afford to go home for the holidays, found herself unexpectedly commanding a little holiday army of do-gooders.

An African immigrant and his family. A young veteran. A couple on a date. By the time they converged in the lobby of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center near Catholic University in Northwest Washington at 10 a.m. yesterday, there were nearly 70 people, shocking the Santa-outfitted coordinator who organizes volunteers on Christmas.

"Usually, I'm lucky to get eight or 10 people," Rich Landon said.

The story of Smith's group is one of a volatile economy, a shaken-up political climate and a culture in which people sometimes feel more comfortable with the anonymity of the Internet than with the church soup kitchen next door. Their backgrounds were wide-ranging, but the reasons people joined Smith's volunteer project -- which included six events Christmas Eve and yesterday -- were variations on the same theme: Something feels different this year.

"It's been a hard year in general for everyone, and a couple of weeks ago, I just thought volunteering seemed like a good way to spend Christmas," said Shreya Patel, 33, who works in information technology with the Internal Revenue Service.

Three days earlier, Patel had found Smith on Craigslist and decided to break with her tradition of staying home with her family.

"They're like, 'You're going where? To some hospital? You met this girl on Craigslist? You're taking a friend with you, right?' " the Rockville woman said, chuckling.

The group included those who rarely volunteer as well as those who do so weekly. But most said they had never volunteered on Christmas.

"This year, I wanted to do something radical," said Olu Olunuga, who brought his wife and two children, 13 and 10, from Silver Spring to meet the group at a Columbia Heights Starbucks to sign cards for veterans before heading to the hospital.

Olunuga said he had been wanting to encourage his children to focus on others. This year, he decided, there would be no gift-giving and they would volunteer instead of eating and having friends over on Christmas.

"Over the years, they just get and get. I asked them, 'Do you want anything you don't have?' " he said.

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