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Better A Life has officially launched a food distribution site in Reston (courtesy Better A Life)

A Loudoun County nonprofit organization is expanding into Reston with a new food distribution site at Cathy Hudgins Community Center.

Better A Life plans to give out food every Wednesday at noon at the community center, followed by the launch of cooking classes in March. The organization also plans to start a homework club, which includes a free hot dinner for children each week and the mentors that assist them.

For Better A Life president and founder Elizabeth Ford, the expansion into Reston is personal. She grew up in Reston as a “child of hunger,” Ford said.

Her mother, who was a single mom, lost the townhouse where they lived in Southgate Square. After moving several times, Ford says she was permanently kicked out of her home when her mother moved overseas with her new husband. She then lived in a Red Rood Inn in Manassas and eventually became homeless.

“I used to sit at the 7-11 outside of Shadow Wood apartments and bum quarters for my food each day,” Ford said. “There were no resources for kids like me to get free food that any of us kids knew of. They finally opened The Pit over behind the police station…and I lived with my friend in Bowman Towne for most of my days as a young teen. This would give us a place to hang out safely.”

Ford went on to get a bachelor’s degree in information technology. Now in a position to help others, she says she wanted to bring more resources to the community.

Based in Purcellville, Better a Life provides food and educational assistance for kids and families with the goal of breaking the cycle of poverty.

“My programs are selected from experience,” Ford said. “I needed all the above, so my nonprofit BetterALife runs off the three programs (Growth4ALife, Cook4ALife, InspireALife) to help the children learn they can make it; there is hope, and they are loved and never forgotten.”

In addition to supporting 12 schools in Loudoun and Fairfax counties with weekend lunches, shoes, socks, blankets and other necessities, the nonprofit made its Reston introduction with a meals and toy distribution event on Dec. 16. The Reston expansion will officially launch on March 1.

The organization is seeking volunteers, particularly high school juniors and seniors. Applicants can email admin@betteralife.org for more information.

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Musician and activist Calvin Earl will lead a class on the music of the Civil Rights Movement for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in McLean (courtesy McLean Community Center)

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is this Monday (Jan. 15), and local events will honor the civil rights leader and provide community engagement opportunities.

The holiday marks King’s birthday (Jan. 15, 1929), and it is also a Congressionally-designated day of service.

A sampling of the many MLK Day events planned around Fairfax County includes speeches, a march and volunteer projects:

2024 Reston Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration
Saturday, Jan. 13-Monday, Jan. 15
Multiple locations
Some events are free, some are ticketed

The Reston Community Center has a full slate of events, including community service projects on Saturday morning at Cathy Hudgins Community Center at Southgate (12125 Pinecrest Road) and a musical performance on Sunday at RCC Hunter Woods — Center Stage (2310 Colts Neck Road). On Monday at 11 a.m., Rev. William J. Barber will deliver a keynote address to a sold-out audience at RCC Hunter Woods. If you don’t have tickets, you can join a waitlist at the box office at 10 a.m.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration Keynote Address
Saturday, Jan. 13
4 p.m.
The Alden Theatre (1234 Ingleside Ave.)
$30 per ticket, or $25 for seniors and $20 for McLean Community Center district residents

Former chairman of the Republican National Committee and former lieutenant governor of Maryland Michael Steele will deliver an address titled “The Black Experience & The American Dream.”

Music of the Civil Rights Movement
Sunday, Jan. 14
2-3:30 p.m.
The Alden Theatre (1234 Ingleside Ave.)
$10 per ticket, or $7 for seniors and $5 for MCC district residents

The Alden Theater at the McLean Community Center will host musician and activist Calvin Earl for a class covering “the music of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond,” per an event description. There will be a Q&A.

Martin Luther King Jr. Service and Learning Event
Monday, Jan. 15
10-11:30 a.m.
Frying Pan Farm Park Visitor Center
$8 per person, registration required

Families can engage with educational materials and a service project at the Frying Pan Farm Park Visitor Center (2709 West Ox Road, Herndon). Activities will be set up at stations and feature lessons about Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement and giving back to the community, per an event description.

Give Together
Monday, Jan. 15
10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Northern Virginia Community College — Ernst Community Cultural Center
Free, registration required

Volunteer Fairfax is commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at the community college’s Annandale campus (8333 Little River Turnpike) by encouraging families to support local nonprofits. Projects will include a food drive and food packing, “caring kits” for community members in need of support, no-tie fleece blankets for veterans and more. Participating kids can earn passport stamps as they complete projects.

Annual March for Unity and Freedom
Monday, Jan. 15
10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
Starts at Tinner Hill Civil Rights Monument (Tinner Hill Road & South Washington Street)
Free, registration requested

Attendees will gather at the Tinner Hill Civil Rights Monument in Falls Church City and make their way to The Falls Church (115 East Fairfax Street) in the March for Unity and Freedom.

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Reston Community Center is holding a food drive until Nov. 20 (via Reston Community Center)

Several Reston organizations are partnering once again for an annual Thanksgiving food drive.

Reston Community Center, the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit Cornerstones are collecting donations of non-perishable food and other items through Nov. 20.

Items that are needed include the following:

  • Grocery store gift cards
  • heavy duty clear plastic bins
  • toilet paper
  • baby wipes
  • hygiene items
  • cooking oil
  • flour
  • sugar
  • condiments
  • dried beans
  • canned fruits
  • canned meats
  • bagged or boxed rice
  • quinoa
  • cereal
  • oatmeal
  • coffee
  • tea
  • shelf-stable milk

Drop-off locations are listed online. They include RCC’s Lake Anne (1609-A Washington Plaza) and Hunters Woods (2310 Colts Neck Road) facilities, the Hunter Mill District office at 1801 Cameron Glen Drive, and other options throughout the community.

The community center is also looking for volunteers to help sort and load the donated food on Nov. 23.

In its annual hunger report released in September, the Capital Area Food Bank found that 24% of Fairfax County residents are food-insecure — a rate unchanged from last year.

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A girl smiles after receiving a free Cinderella-themed birthday cake through the Fairfax County chapter of Cake4Kids, an organization that provides free cakes to underserved youth (courtesy Mary Campbell)

For many, a cake on their birthday is a given. However, for others, it’s a quiet luxury that they are unable to attain.

Recognizing this unfortunate reality, Cake4Kids — a national organization with a Fairfax County chapter founded by Mary Campbell in 2019 — seeks to make birthday cakes accessible for all.

According to Campbell, her Cake4Kids chapter makes and delivers free custom cakes for major celebratory events, including birthdays, graduations, adoptions, and academic achievements, to people aged 1-24 throughout Northern Virginia. Popular cake themes include Disney, Minecraft and Fortnite.

“We’re helping families because some of them don’t have the resources, and it may be a choice between paying a bill and getting a cake,” Campbell said. “We want to remove that burden for them and be able to provide the cake that they want for their child. In other cases, it strengthens the bonds between a case worker and a child.”

Campbell’s branch of Cake4Kids is currently partnered with 117 organizations across the county, such as Fairfax County Public Schools, community centers, affordable housing nonprofits, immigration clinics and homeless and domestic violence shelters.

The collaborations help the chapter increase its reach and make a positive impact on as many families and children as possible — an impact that Campbell finds “hard to quantify.”

“I hear stories about the impact [Cake4Kids] has on families and children,” Campbell said. “I hear from schools how students are brought to tears when they realize they’ve just received a cake — families that are so relieved that they were able to give their child a cake that they too are brought to tears.”

Celebrating its four-year anniversary in May by delivering its 4,000th cake to a 14-year-old girl in Fairfax County, Campbell’s chapter has grown tremendously since its inception as a one-woman operation.

After baking 163 cakes in its first year, the chapter now has a hearty team of 750 volunteer bakers who successfully made 2,000 cakes in 2022. Its success relies on the dedication of a team of “heroes” who spend their free time baking and delivering cakes all across the county, Campbell says.

In many instances, the bakers never meet the children they baked a cake for, instead dropping the cake off with the organization, case worker or family who requested it. Campbell says this allows the child to build trust in and bond with their loved one without Cake4Kids imposing.

Even without the gratification of seeing in real time the often emotional reactions of those receiving the free cakes, her team of bakers continues to eagerly monitor their online portal for cake requests and get right to work when one comes through, according to Campbell.

“I can’t stress enough how many wonderful people we have in our chapter who work tirelessly to help us grow and get the word out there and help find more bakers and more agencies and raise funds,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s family has even joined her in the cause, she says, with her children and husband traveling all across Northern Virginia to handle many requests.

“It truly is a team effort. In fact, my son is on his way to Alexandria right now delivering cupcakes for me because I’m on crutches,” Campbell laughed.

Though she initially launched Cake4Kids in Fairfax County as a way to fill the free time she gained from her kids getting older and becoming more independent, Campbell’s charitable passion has turned into a full-time career. Several years ago, Campbell was promoted to a paid position running day-to-day operations at the nationwide level, which she does in addition to volunteering as a Northern Virginia ambassador, she says.

While the promotion means she focuses more on logistics and less on baking, Campbell still remains inspired by the creative ingenuity taken by her bakers after they receive a cake request. She says her favorite cake ever made featured “Spider-Man riding a unicorn.”

“I love it when a theme like that comes in because I can’t wait to see how these creative bakers are going to interpret that and put it on a cake,” Campbell said.

Looking ahead, Campbell hopes to continue spreading the word about Cake4Kids so the chapter can build more partnerships and more effectively “reach every child and family that wants to place a cake request with us,” she says.

“We’re always growing, we’re always looking for more bakers,” Campbell said. “We’re always looking for more families to help.”

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Volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates get sworn in by the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court (courtesy Fairfax CASA)

Fairfax County’s child welfare system has seen abuse and neglect cases surge over the past year, taxing the dozens of volunteers charged with advocating for those children in foster care and court.

As of May, over 188 new kids have been placed in foster care or under a protective court order since July 1, 2022 — nearly double the 98 cases added the previous year, according to Fairfax CASA, a nonprofit that trains and supervises volunteer, court-appointed special advocates for children.

With a waitlist of about 50 children, as of last week, the organization says it urgently needs more volunteers, particularly Black, Hispanic and Spanish-speaking individuals.

“It’s such an important program,” Fairfax CASA Executive Director Darcy Hubbard said. “It really does change the outcome for our most vulnerable kids, and we desperately need people right now.”

Fairfax CASA currently has about 140 volunteers assigned to cases referred by the Fairfax County Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court. They work with attorneys and social workers to help each child get the services they need, increasing their chances of finding a safe, permanent home, according to the nonprofit.

Cases have become more complex

All of the cases are serious, since an advocate doesn’t get involved until after the court has determined a child was abused or neglected. But the issues facing families have grown in complexity this year, limiting most volunteers to one case at a time, Hubbard says.

About 60% of cases now involve domestic violence, compared to the typical rate of 30%, and cases where substance use or mental health issues are factors have also increased. For example, CASA got five cases with babies born with drugs in their bloodstream last year; this year, there have been 32 babies.

According to Hubbard, struggles with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses have increased for both parents and kids, particularly adolescents, which tracks with Fairfax County and national reports. Alcohol consumption and fentanyl use have also gone up during the pandemic.

“In addition to the trauma and the stuff that’s going on in their families, I think whatever is going on in the world has piled on to all the kids, and for our kids, it hits them extra hard because they don’t have some of the protective factors that other children have,” such as an adult they can rely on or a sense of security at home, Hubbard said.

She emphasized that mental health and substance use issues don’t justify opening a child welfare case, but the county government and court will intervene if those challenges rise to the level of endangering the kid’s wellbeing.

“Usually, the [Department of Family Services] is well-aware of the family and has been trying to work with them and help them for a long time,” she said. Read More

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A cherry tree in front of the Vita Apartments on the Plaza at Tysons Corner Center (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Updated at 11:35 a.m. on 4/27/2023 — With rain in the forecast tomorrow (Friday), the cherry tree plantings have been postponed to May 6, the Tysons Community Alliance announced today.

Earlier: This year’s cherry blossom season has come and gone, but in Tysons, the seeds for future flowers are about to take root.

The Tysons Community Alliance (TCA), the nonprofit community improvement organization formed to replace the Tysons Partnership, has partnered with the National Cherry Blossom Festival to obtain and plant 17 cherry trees around the urban center.

The trees will be planted at Tysons Corner Center and Scotts Run this Friday (April 28), which is not coincidentally also Arbor Day.

“We chose cherry trees as our first official planting in Tysons because of their beautiful blooms and rich history in the region,” Tysons Community Alliance interim CEO Rich Bradley said. “Moreover, by partnering with the National Cherry Blossom Festival to plant these trees, it allows us to be an official part of what has become a truly regional celebration and one of the largest festivals in the country.”

About 50 volunteers are needed for the plantings, according to the TCA. They can participate in one or both of the two scheduled shifts:

Shift 1

  • Location: Scotts Run, 1651 Old Meadow Rd, Tysons, VA, 22102
  • Volunteer arrival time: 7:30 a.m.
  • Training session: 7:45 a.m.
  • Planting begins: 8 a.m.

Shift 2

  • Location: I-495 pedestrian bridge (Tysons Corner Center side)
  • Volunteer arrival time: 11:30 a.m.
  • Training session: 11:45 a.m.
  • Planting begins: noon

An official ceremony to celebrate the plantings is scheduled for 9 a.m. at the Scotts Run trailhead.

The Arbor Day event extends a collaboration between the TCA and the festival that began earlier this month with the first annual “Pedal with Petals” family bicycle ride. The partnership was announced at the alliance’s official launch in February.

Held from March 20 to April 14 this year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival works with the nonprofit Casey Trees to plant trees around the D.C. area. The TCA will be responsible for maintaining the new trees in Tysons going forward, according to a spokesperson.

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The McLean Community Center’s Old Firehouse Center (file photo)

The McLean Community Center is on the lookout for local teens who are in tune with what kids these days enjoy.

The community center has launched a new MCC Youth Ambassador initiative that invites students from McLean and Langley high schools to provide input on and promote events at their schools and online.

MCC provides programming for older kids and teens through its Old Firehouse Center (OFC) at 1440 Chain Bridge Road. The facility generally attracts middle school-aged students, but attendance dips once kids enter high school, according to minutes from the governing board’s Sept. 28 meeting.

“I think the reason why is that they felt that it was more of MCC telling them to come — rather than it being a high school-oriented and high school-planned event publicized throughout social media,” said Charlotte Loving, who represents the Langley High School area on the board.

Conceived by Loving and Sarah Tran, who represents McLean High on the board, the initiative is open to all students enrolled in those two schools who live in MCC’s tax district, known as Dranesville Small District 1A.

Here’s more on the volunteer positions from MCC’s announcement, released on Friday (Nov. 18):

Youth Ambassadors will serve as liaisons between community youth and the two youth members of the MCC Governing Board, Sarah Tran (Langley High boundary area) and Charlotte Loving (McLean High boundary area). The ambassadors will promote MCC activities via their social media platforms and through resources at their respective schools. They will also assist in planning events and activities targeted to the youth of McLean in support of acquiring their growing participation in MCC programs. Ambassadors will meet monthly at MCC or the Old Firehouse Center to discuss public feedback and plan future activities.

Applications can be found on the MCC website and sent when completed to MCC General Programs Director Michael Fisher at michael.fisher@fairfaxcounty.gov. The deadline to apply is Friday, Dec. 9.

According to the website, the ambassador program is currently considered a pilot. If deemed successful, it could expand to allow participants from private high schools in the tax district.

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The first Rescue Reston rally began 10 years ago (via Rescue Reston)

Rescue Reston, a volunteer organization that seeks to preserve Reston’s open space, is officially marking its 10-year anniversary.

The grassroots organization plans to host a rally on Oct. 15 from 1-3 p.m. to celebrate its efforts to protect Reston’s recreational open space.

Rescue Reston formed in 2012 in an effort to successfully oppose the redevelopment of Reston National Golf Course. The owners of the golf course sought to redevelop the golf course into a residential development.

“The Rescue Reston 10th Anniversary Rally for Open Space will show all how strong we are together and demonstrate the level of community support there is for protecting Reston’s recreational open spaces for current and future generations,” organizers said on the event page.

Participants will get a chance to learn how to get get involved with the organization.

“In 2012 we coalesced around a common vision and purpose and have moved forward with unwavering community support over the past 10 years,” organizers say.

Here’s more from Rescue Reston’s president Connie Hartke:

Hidden Creek’s owners made their pitch for development a few years ago, but on March 23, 2020, Supervisor Alcorn stated “…there is not support from surrounding communities for changing the comprehensive plan. In fact it is not even close – there are more than five residents against for every supporter of possibly changing the plan. Therefore, I do not support changing the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan’s current designation of this property as a golf course and consider the matter closed.”

The community around Reston National Golf Course has stayed united against development, even after listening to the RNGC developer-owners pitches for the last 18 months.

The Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan for Reston recently went through a 2.5 year update process by a 31-member community task force. Reston currently has a population of slightly over 60,000, but when all the development under the current plan draft is approved and built, the total population will nearly double to an estimated 110,000 to 120,000 people. Over half of the new housing population will be in the Transit Area between Sunrise Valley Drive and Sunset Hills Drive, where it is expected and planned for.

Our designated Biophilic City of Reston continues to grow and evolve. The speculators who own the two golf courses need to stop attempting to upend our careful planning. They bought golf courses.

Since its inception, the organization has fought a battle on two fronts: preserving the Hidden Creek Country Club and Reston National. Reston’s comprehensive plan — the county’s official guiding document on planning and development for the planned community — designates both golf courses for private recreational use and specific to remain as golf course.

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(Updated at 4:40 p.m.) Ramón Santiago’s journey to the Little League World Series (LLWS) was a complicated one, filled with struggle as well as joy.

Thanks to the efforts of some supportive parents, the McLean Little League coach’s continued dedication to his team while undergoing treatment for cancer earned him an honorable mention for the 2022 Little League Baseball Coach of the Year Award.

Though they didn’t attend in person, Santiago and the other honorable mentions for the award got shoutouts during a plaque ceremony at the Little League World Series Complex in South Williamsport, Florida, on Saturday (Aug. 20).

“We do it for the kids, but to know that people hold you in that high regard, it really touched my heart, and knowing that they had to put an effort in order to do this, I was over the moon,” Santiago told FFXnow by phone. “I was touched. I even got a little teary-eyed, to be quite honest, which I didn’t expect.”

“He knows these kids very well”

It didn’t take long for Santiago to get involved in McLean Little League (MLL) after moving to the area in 2020.

A Springfield resident as a kid and an alumus of Robert E. Lee High School (now renamed John R. Lewis High School), he was introduced to the league by his neighbor from across the street, Dana Yoo, who has served on the MLL board of directors for the past four to five years.

Santiago initially volunteered as an assistant coach for his son’s T-ball team “just to stay involved with my son,” a decision he has never regretted. But his friendliness, positivity and emphasis on ensuring the kids have fun in addition to learning baseball and life skills quickly endeared him to the other players and their parents.

“He knows these kids very well, each of them, and he encourages them…He makes the children feel good, confident about themselves, and he’s not that kind of strict person,” said Awa Zhu, one of several parents whose kids have stuck with Santiago as he and his son have moved from T-ball up to their current Double-A team, the Storm.

The diagnosis

With Santiago and his wife, Sharon, becoming reliable presences at MLL games, including ones not involving their son, it came as a shock when he shared in an summer 2021 email to families that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that spring.

He had never missed a game or practice, despite beginning chemotherapy and other treatments — a trend that continued in the fall of 2021 and spring 2022 seasons. Read More

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A one-day beautification project at Lake Fairfax Park is planned next month (via Virginia Tourism Corporation)

A one-day beautification project is slated to take place next month at Lake Fairfax in Reston.

The Fairfax County Park Authority is seeking volunteers for a community stewardship celebration at Lake Fairfax Park on Sept. 24.

After a community celebration — which will feature a light breakfast and remarks by local officials — volunteers will begin beautifying the park.

Naturalists will be on site to help volunteers plant trees near the park’s core areas, remove invasive plants, and help with other beautification efforts.

“This is a great way to give of yourself and be part of something much larger,” the park authority said.

Volunteers can sign up online as individuals or as groups. Individuals 15 and under must be accompanied by an adult.

The event is in honor of National Public Lands Day, which falls annually on the fourth Saturday of September and encourages volunteers to help out on public lands.

The park is located at 1400 Lake Fairfax Drive and the event is part of FCPA Executive Director Jai Cole’s last stop on her parks tour this year.

Photo via Virginia Tourism Corp.

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