The Community Holiday Coalition is looking for a new home from which to distribute food, clothing and gifts to hundreds of low-income families at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Every holiday season for nearly a decade, the coalition has transformed up to 30,000 square feet of donated space into a veritable factory of charity work. But it has been unable to secure space this year, and coalition coordinator Karen Velez said that if it cannot find something by Sept. 1, some programs could have to be cut or eliminated.
Last year the coalition provided such items as food baskets, coats, new clothes and toys to 1,190 low-income families.
The coalition is looking for a single location of 15,000 to 20,000 square feet or several smaller sites in Leesburg or eastern Loudoun. The space is needed from Nov. 1 through Jan. 31.
"A third option might be if we were able to use a school for a weekend [or more]. But I don't even want to think about that yet," said Velez, who works for the Community Partnerships Development Unit of the Loudoun County Department of Social Services.
Without a single large site, Velez said, the coalition might have to focus on food distribution at Thanksgiving and have another group such as a church take over the coat drive. The coalition would still need at least 5,000 square feet to organize and distribute the food baskets from Nov. 12 to 18, she said.
At Christmas, the coalition would need at least three sites between 5,000 and 7,500 square feet, which would be used for receiving and shipping, and would try to get equal distribution to the east and west sides of the county from Dec. 4 to 16, she said. The food drive may have to be replaced with grocery gift cards, she said.
"We would need at least as many volunteers as last year, and the scheduling would be a nightmare," she said. "But we're willing to work through it if we have to."
The coalition relies on about 1,000 volunteers. In addition to distributing food baskets and coats, it runs an annual Christmas store where eligible families can pick up free holiday gifts and groceries. Local businesses, churches, civic organizations and service clubs as well as families and individuals volunteer their efforts each year to make the programs possible. One of the biggest contributors is the Boy Scouts, which collects tens of thousands of pounds of food annually for the coalition's holiday food drives. This year's food collection is scheduled for Nov. 12.
"We have a large core group of volunteers who return every year, but there's always new volunteers as well, " Velez said. "Some are very dedicated," such as one woman who uses her two-week vacation every year to volunteer.
The coalition was formed in 1996 when several local government agencies and nonprofit groups met to coordinate their holiday charity programs. By working together, the groups were able to organize a program for which families have to fill out only one application. Having a large, centralized location has been key to providing countywide distribution of food and goods.
For its first five years, the coalition worked out of the National Guard Armory in Leesburg, but it lost that space after Sept. 11, 2001, for security reasons.
For the next two years, it used an empty Wal-Mart on Route 28 at Waxpool Road owned by the Lerner Corp. Last year, after learning in September that the 30,000-square-foot building would no longer be available, organizers and volunteers made hundreds of calls in an effort to secure new space.
Less than three weeks before Thanksgiving, Lerner donated 20,000 square feet of space in the Vintage Park One Office Complex off routes 28 and 606 in Sterling. Velez said that if Lerner is unable to rent that space by the holidays, the coalition may still be able to use it.
"Lerner has been very generous. . . . We are hopeful they won't rent it" by the holidays, she said, "but I'd love to have an answer by [September]. It takes a lot of room, and I just want to get the word out because it affects so many people."
"Finding space is not easy, though there are a lot of large empty buildings in the county," she said. "A lot of them are new and haven't been supplied with electricity or heat, and they won't be until they are rented."
Anyone interested in donating space should call the coalition's Holiday Hotline at 703-771-5718. Volunteers should call 703-737-8367. Information on the program can be found at www.loudoun.gov/dss/holiday.