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Woman still playing elf for needy children

HOLIDAY HELPING: See more opportunities to help out for the holidays.

Mary Lou Pitzer helped start St. Matthias Methodist Church’s holiday bicycle drive in 2005. It has grown from providing bikes for six needy children that year to 55 this year.  SUZANNE CARR ROSSI/THE FREE LANCE–STAR

GROWING up in Radford, Va., dressing as an elf with a father who stood in for Santa, Mary Lou Pitzer couldn’t conceive of a future that wasn’t wrapped up in Christmas.

This Sunday, during the children’s moment in the 8:45 and 11 a.m. services at St. Matthias United Methodist Church, Pitzer will repeat her annual Christmas miracle—in which she turns wadded up bills, children’s change and checks from the collection plate at the Grafton Village church into shiny new bicycles.

Not one, not five or even 10.

No, when she proudly reports to the church’s congregation this weekend—“probably with a tear or two, I get emotional,” says Pitzer—it will be to share the news that the kind-hearted church family has purchased 55 children’s bikes for the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program.

That’s in addition to adopting 60 youngsters with varying needs through the same program.

And providing extras of everything, from coats to toys to gloves and underwear.

Oh, yeah, there’s also a helmet for every youngster who gets a bike.

“We’re going to make sure they’re safe. Every bike comes with a helmet,” said Pitzer.

According to officials with the Salvation Army Angel Tree program, which this year is struggling to get 2,600 needy seniors and youngsters shopped for this holiday season, Pitzer and the arrival of bicycles from St. Matthias are a godsend they’ve come to count on.

“It means so much,” said Angel Tree volunteer Zena Hemp. “Every year they come through for us. We couldn’t afford to buy that many bikes for these children.”

Pitzer said the church started adding bikes to its holiday-giving effort in 2005. While talking with the church’s minister, she suggested that St. Matthias should start helping children in a special way.

She and church officials set out a large jar for contributions in the church’s narthex, and began taking other donations in the collection plate or directly. They were thrilled to collect enough that first year to buy six bicycles.

“It’s grown by eight or nine bikes every year since,” said Pitzer, who noted that givers have ranged from high schools to the Elks and Moose lodges.

Pitzer, who taught math for 32 years at Stafford High School and who still tutors and teaches ESL children part-time at Drew Middle School, said a collection of parishioners helps her buy and transport the bikes. She noted that her husband, Gene, pitches in, too.

This Sunday, a few bikes will be ridden down the church aisles during her report. All 55 will be on display in the church’s social hall.

It’s a bounty that’s possible, she said, because church members cared enough to give more than $4,500 of their hard-earned cash.

“People really get into it and want to know every fall when we’ll put out the jar for donations,” she said.

Early Monday morning, volunteers from the Angel Tree program will arrive with trucks and a trailer to haul the bicycles to the warehouse where donations are amassed and distributed.

“They may have to take two trips,” Pitzer said with a smile truly earned. “It’s special every year.”

Pitzer and many who donate said they like the idea of giving bikes because they’re a Christmas classic that never goes out of style. And bikes help get youngsters active and outdoors—not an easy thing to do in today’s world of video games and other electronic goodies.

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Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415 rhedelt@freelancestar.com

TIME RUNNING OUT TO HELP NEEDY KIDS

Caring folks in the Fredericksburg region need to step up big time in the next four days to bring Christmas to the area’s needy.

If they don’t, the nearly 2,000 needy youngsters and seniors seeking gifts through the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program could get little more than cinders in their stockings.

It’s go-time, folks. So far, we’re badly failing these folks in need and we need to get hopping.

Faced with the cancellation of the local Red Cross “Letters to Santa” program, the Salvation Army started this year’s holiday drive with 2,600 seeking help.

To date, the names and wants of some 700 of those have been taken, shopped for and returned.

With gifts needed by next Monday to allow a few days for processing for distribution, that leaves only four days to shop for the 1,900 remaining youngsters and seniors.

Angel Trees

There are a few days left to take a tag with a child’s name and wants from “Angel Trees” at selected area stores, or from the Salvation Army office at 2012 Lafayette Blvd. You can also request a name and needs to shop for by calling 374-3431.

Each of those tags has a short list of wished-for toys or clothing, which can be purchased and then returned to the store where you got the tag or directly to the “Angel Tree” warehouse, the former Giant Food store at State Route 3 and Bragg Road in Spotsylvania.

Local stores with Angel Trees include area Walmarts (except the one at Ferry Farm); Giant Food stores at White Oak, on State Route 208 in Spotsylvania, at Harrison Crossing and at Eagle Village in the city; the two JCPenney stores in Spotsylvania Towne Centre; and a tree in the common area at the Towne Centre.

Help more quickly

For those who can’t or don’t care to take on all the wants and needs of a particular child or senior, there’s an easier way to help.

You can simply donate money, gift cards or one or more new toys or pieces of children’s clothing.

You can drop those off at the Salvation Army office at 2012 Lafayette Blvd. or at the Angel Tree warehouse at Route 3 and Bragg Road.

And if you’d like to make that drop-off holiday special, do it between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, when the Salvation Army holds a special toy drive. There, in those hours, you can even get a free hot dog and hot chocolate as a thanks for your donations.

If you want to roll up and not come in, volunteers will be waiting out front.

Safety net

Though the Angel Tree program can’t come close to providing gifts for a thousand or more children who don’t get sponsors shopping for them, there is a plan to help as many as possible.

It’s called “Toyland,” an assemblage of toys, clothing, books and other gifts by age groups, to provide toys for those not taken by sponsors.

Volunteers will take the empty bags of any un-sponsored children and seniors and load them with as many toys, items of clothing and other gifts as are available at Toyland.

“We always figure to have some children and seniors not sponsored,” said Angel Tree head elf Cheryl Howard. “But there’s no way we have enough to handle as many as it looks like we’ll have to help ourselves this year.”

She’s worried that as many as a thousand children and seniors could be left un-sponsored.

“We like to see that each child gets one nice gift and two smaller ones,” she said. “Even with the deliveries we’ve gotten through ‘Toys for Tots,’ and the things we’ve purchased up to now with donations and other funds, there’s no way we’re going to have 3,000 gifts to cover that need.”

There you have it, Fredericksburg region.

There’s 1,900 in need and four days to help.

Caring and kind shoppers, start your engines.

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