For Michele Rieman and her three daughters, there was a Christmas, after all.
Two weeks before the holiday, Rieman, 32, a cashier at Sterling Park Shell, was not expecting to have gifts for her girls, much less a tree to put them under. A rent dispute with her landlord ended with Rieman on the sidewalk in front of her Sterling apartment--along with the kitchen table and the Christmas tree.
"I'd just bought the tree and the bulbs and everything," said Rieman, whose husband died two years ago after being electrocuted in a tree-climbing accident. The $100 she had left was enough to rent a small self-storage unit for her family's belongings.
The family's sleeping quarters for the next week were four cots at the Good Shepherd Alliance shelter in Leesburg. Her daughters missed a week of school. It had been, as Rieman described it, "a rough two years," and the holidays looked as if they were going to follow suit.
But the week before Christmas, the spirit of the season began to reach into her world. Three days before Christmas Eve, Rieman stood outside the Salvation Army, unable to stop grinning. She carried four bright yellow bags filled with Christmas presents for her girls, waiting for a new housemate who would arrive at the Market Street storefront to take Rieman home.
Rieman--and 150 other single parents and elderly Loudoun residents--would have had little or no Christmas to speak of without the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program, in which church groups, companies and individuals donate stuffed animals, toys, clothing, winter clothes and the occasional bicycle.
"I'm so happy that these people did this for me," said Rieman, oohing and aahing as she peeked inside her bags and plucked out a girl's white sweater, a jump rope, Barbie dolls and three packages of socks. "Things have been so crappy. I'm just loving life today."
This year, the major nonprofit organizations across Loudoun County--boosted by the efforts of hundreds of volunteers--made Christmas possible for more than 1,000 residents. Many more families were served by churches, corporations and individuals who found their own ways to help.
On the Tuesday before Christmas, the entire police force of Purcellville--eight people, including Chief Duane Atkisson--piled into an ambulance and delivered heat-and-eat turkey meals to 20 residents. Members of the Western Loudoun Optimist Club joined the group, which began the food deliveries last year.
"All of the officers go up to each house," Atkisson said--and this year, they were accompanied by the police chaplain and the chief's 12-year-old daughter, who carried the pies. "We all go in and we say, 'Merry Christmas.' We don't say very many words. It's the gesture and the feelings that count."
Organizers working with the Community Holiday Coalition, which provided gifts, clothing, household and personal care items and food to 740 families, said this year was marked by a greater need for gifts for teenagers. For this age group, volunteers found themselves providing lots of blue jeans, hair dryers and compact discs. A few donors had even given the occasional compact disc player.
"The quality and the quantity of gifts was great," said Karen Velez, coordinator of the coalition and an employee of the Loudoun County Department of Social Services. "I like to make sure that every kid gets a new outfit, a couple of toys, a stuffed stocking, a book and a game. That's my reality, when I get down to it. And I had no problem doing it. They are a very generous community out here."
And none so generous, as far as Rieman was concerned, as Leslie Jeffries, her co-worker at the Shell station. It was Jeffries who rented Rieman's family a room in her home until they figure out what to do next.
"I met her just a month ago," Rieman said of Jeffries. "It's just neat because I don't have any family here to reach out to and do that with."
Jeffries, 29, who has two children at home, said she simply saw someone in need and offered the space she had available. She was reminded, she said, of her own situation four years ago, when she and her family stayed in a shelter.
"I'm just doing what anyone would do," Jeffries said.