Ways to Aid Local Homeless and Impoverished Communities

Cosette Jo, Staff Writer

Courtesy of Charles Russo

As of July, 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 6 percent of people (around 68,852 individuals) in Fairfax County experience poverty. According to Fairfax County’s 2021 Point-In-Time Count, there has been a 17 percent increase in homelessness compared to 2020, contributing to an overall increase in the number of homeless individuals in the last five years. In Woodson High School, 12.87 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch. Here are three different Cavs who have engaged in activities that address poverty and homelessness in order to meet the needs of various members of our community; senior Hanna Truong, Mr. Charles Russo, and Mrs. Sussy Tomer. They address these issues through organized drives and volunteer work, and offer ways for students to similarly assist locally.

Food & Items Drives

Key Club officer Hanna Truong explains that the prominent after school group has run multiple events directed toward homeless/impoverished communities in the past, including an annual Thanksgiving drive, a personal care items drive for local homeless shelters, and a comfort kit drive for children impacted by disaster. Currently, they are still planning events for this school year, but interested donors should keep an eye out for holiday drives coming up, including a pre-winter break Toy drive. “What we usually do is place boxes around the school, and we have our members or anyone else who would like to donate place their items in the box,” she says.

Courtesy of Woodson Key Club

In last year’s Thanksgiving drive, they gathered over 100 pounds of canned food for the Food for Others organization: https://foodforothers.org/. Another prominent food pantry in the area is Cornerstones Assistance Services and Pantry Program (ASAPP), which you can visit here: https://www.cornerstonesva.org/services/food-financial-or-urgent-assistance/foods-and-basic-needs/. These groups are two of many around the area, and are great places for Cavs to get involved, whether though volunteer work or donations. Similarly, the Stuff the Bus food drive is organized by Fairfax County and non profits. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/neighborhood-community-services/stuff-the-bus to learn more.

Shelters:

World History teacher Mr. Charles Russo has experience volunteering at The Lamb Center, a local drop-in shelter, and was recently hired to become a staff member there. When it comes to working the shelter, he explains that volunteers are essential to reducing the burden on employees. “[I learned] how important volunteers are, because when the volunteers didn’t show up, then that was more work for the employees to do. And volunteering at a homeless shelter can be stressful.” He says that most volunteers work either at the front desk, in the kitchen or do the laundry, but there have been youth groups that visited that also helped maintain the grounds and even spread the mulch.

Russo explains that he got into volunteer work because he “felt like it was time to give back.

Courtesy of Sussy Tomer

“When I was working in my previous career, my time [was] very limited and I didn’t volunteer as much as I should have. I volunteered with money in donations, but not physically being there,” says Russo. Now, he has experience in both the administrative and “grunt” work involved in helping to run a shelter. Russo has also been able to serve the homeless on a more personal level. “I got to talk more with the participants — just talking to them and spending more time one on one with them and seeing what’s going on in their heads,” he says.

We are currently approaching the season when shelters will be in greatest need of volunteers. “A lot of volunteers…will travel for the holidays to see their kids or other family members, so I’d plan on volunteering over the Christmas break probably a few times,” he recommends. “Especially in the kitchen, because that’s probably the most hectic place to be depending on how many people come to eat.” It’s not just the holidays, however. “Saturdays are the hardest time for the Lamb Center, and probably for most shelters, to get volunteers,” he explains.

Though there is an minimum age requirement of 18 in order to volunteer, Russo says that if students come in a group like a school sponsored club, they will most likely be allowed in the Lamb Center. “If you have a heart to volunteer, that’s a good place to start…If anybody wants to know how to do that, they can get ahold of me and I will put them in touch with the people there to see how we can make it work.” Russo can be contacted at [email protected].

Coat Drives:

That is not the only area in which Cavs can easily help out. Mrs. Sussy Tomer has been at Woodson for 7 years. Aside from working as the Hispanic Family Liaison, she runs her own free clothing, accessories and supplies program within the school. “That’s not part of my job, but I do it because I feel very strongly about it,” she explains. Woodson’s Leadership group sometimes helps her collect items that other students might leave behind or give away. “It’s brand new stuff, and I give it back to the students.”

Courtesy of Sussy Tomer

Tomer works tirelessly to collect reusable things from different individuals and organizations, posting requests on Facebook and the PTO webpage, and oftentimes driving around the community in order to pick them up. She also sorts through the front office’s lost and found collection from previous years to find reusable items. “Students just leave a pair of shoes or a good sweatshirt…all around the building, and nobody comes to claim it,” she explains. “Usually they just throw it away…they give it to me every year now. I search and see what’s reusable and what’s not, then I wash it.” The items are then made available to the Woodson community.

It’s not just for students, either. “Whoever needs it,” says Tomer firmly. “Whoever. It doesn’t matter: custodians, cafeteria [workers], parents. Sometimes they request it and if I have it, I give to them.”

The reason behind all of this, she shares, stems from her own experience. “I grew up very poor and with a lot of limitations,” she explains. That background has inspired her to help others who are also struggling.

“I’m very fortunate to work at Woodson and to have, first of all, a principal that supports my crazy ideas…and second of all, a community that responds.” Tomer describes times in the past when she has posted requests and had parents respond and donate items. “I’m also very fortunate to have the leadership team, and they help me.”

Tomer currently accepts winter clothes and accessories that are new or gently used, and clean. Students should wash any clothes before donating them, then drop them off at the front office, or contact her. She also welcomes student assistance in sorting, washing and hanging the clothes. “Usually I do it by myself when I can, but if you have anyone that wants to volunteer, I can [give them] volunteer hours,” she offers.

Outside of Woodson, the nonprofit organization, Cornerstones, is helping to run the Hunter Mill District Coat Closet. They accept coats, but also other winter attire at the North County Government Building. Visit https://www.cornerstonesva.org/donations/drives/winter-coat-closet/ for more information.

Hypothermia Prevention Program:

This program is run by Fairfax County from December 1 through March 31. The program partners with various nonprofit providers such as Facets, The Lamb Center, New Hope Housing, and Cornerstones to provide a safe shelter for homeless individuals during the winter season. Hypothermia clinics are hosted by various community and faith centers around the county. You can look up the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness or Fairfax County’s Hypothermia Prevention Program to learn more about how to contribute.

Adopt-A-Family Holiday Program:

This annual program run by Fairfax County pairs groups or individuals willing to provide gifts for the holiday season with a family in need. Once matched with a family, information will be emailed to donors and they will be able to gift them toys and necessities. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/familyservices/children-youth/volunteer-partner-services/adopt-a-family to find out how to support a family.

Toy Drives:

Toys for Tots is a Marine-run charity that distributes toys to less fortunate children. You can donate both locally and online. Go to https://www.toysfortots.org/donate/ for more information. Northern Virginia Family Service is currently running a program called Gifting for Families, which also collects toys for children within the area. https://www.nvfs.org/support/holiday-giving/gifting-for-families/.

Other shelters and organizations accept donations and volunteers on a steady basis. Volunteering in particular can also be a valuable experience for those serving. “I learned how lucky I am and how very fortunate I am,” Russo says of his volunteer work. Tomer also encourages Cavs to be cognizant of themselves and other people.

“It would be nice if people would just think about, especially when we come from another country, all the stuff that we throw away that is good, that for someone else…makes a big difference,” Tomer says. “If we see the sweater that Mom bought you that you don’t like, that sweater can be used for someone else that really makes a big difference. That probably would be my last message — just to change that mindset.”