Fairfax County firefighter runs yearly toy drive for underprivileged kids


It's the most wonderful time of year for so many -- but it can also be the hardest for families in need.

That's why in Fairfax County, Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Willie Bailey makes sure hundreds of kids get the full experience of the holidays.

On Monday at Fire Station 11 in Alexandria, nine busloads of local underprivileged preschoolers and first graders from Fairfax County, Alexandria and Oxon Hill, Maryland, stopped by for a toy giveaway -- as well collecting some books, petting therapy dogs and spending time with Santa Claus.

Hundreds filled the station -- including volunteers from the community, the fire department and county government -- to lead the children through the set-up.

It's a vast undertaking that Bailey begins organizing each year in January. He says he knows all too well how hard the holidays can be. His parents moved to Alexandria in the 1960's from southern Virginia.

"We didn't have a lot," he said. "We had six kids, my parents came here to look for work. I remember my parents going around to events like this to try to find gifts for their children. So to me, I'm just paying it forward."

It's what led Bailey to create his nonprofit organization, Firefighters and Friends to the Rescue, almost 20 years ago -- helping thousands of kids in the D.C.-area, year round.

The group organizes a local backpack giveaway, distributing more than 2500 filled backpacks. There's also the free haircuts for back to school as well as a coat drive in the autumn.

"Some of them, probably getting off the bus with our coats on that we gave them in October," Bailey said.

But there's something particularly special about the toy drive, to which Bailey devotes countless hours -- much of it on his own time.

He organizes the volunteers, raises money for donations, and even pops over to the toy story to buy many of the presents himself -- of which there are so many, Bailey lost track of how many there are.

"I stopped counting after about two to three thousand," he said. "Once we get rid of these, we have more we have to unload."

After students moved through the setup at Station 11, 50 to 60 school representatives also showed up to pick out presents for families to give to their kids.

Bailey will be promoted next month to Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Deputy Fire Chief but says his efforts won't stop.

"It's going to get even busier, but I'm going to still do this. I'll get all the sleep I want when I die. When you look at these kids, it's worth it," he said.

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