Tradition continues: Firefighters help Santa deliver gifts to some area families

Santa Claus (Jim Kizzar) gets ready to load Christmas presents on the Gainesboro fire truck to deliver to three needy families. Helping him are firefighters Brookeyln Mason, Jamie Mason, Mark Mason, Olivia Lehmberg, and Brandon McDonald of the Gainesboro Fire and Rescue Company. Courtesy photo by Rose McDonald

Tonight, four nights before Christmas, a 14-ton bright red Gainesboro pumper fire truck with lights flashing and a jolly Santa Claus aboard, will pay a 6 p.m. visit to an old three-bedroom farmhouse on a country road in northern Frederick County.

That will be the home of one of eight needy families with 21 children getting a passel of gift-wrapped presents as part of an annual Christmas outreach by the tiny Gainesboro Fire and Rescue Company – only one full-time paid employee.

“I don’t know what to expect,” said the 33-year-mother of four children aged 14 months to 14 years old. Her husband lost his good paying job earlier this year and is now working for minimum wage while she stays home to care for the baby.

“We only have a few small random things we got here and there. If it wasn’t for the fire hall, the kids wouldn’t have much of a Christmas at all,” she said, asking her name not be used.

“We didn’t know what we were going to do,” she added. “Its hard enough just to keep a roof over our heads, pay for the electric and the heat and put food in the kids’ stomachs and everything else.”

Over the past 15 years the Gainesboro Fire and Rescue Department has provided gifts for 164 families and 465 children, one of many unheralded small acts of Christmas giving kindness in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

“We have lived here for all our lives and it is a very giving area,” said Mark McDonald, 53, president of the fire company who handles administrative duties. “When you see the kids’ faces light up, it’s just awesome.”

Three families will get gifts via the fire truck and the other five families will pick them up at the Gainesboro Fire station, located in Virginia’s rural and northernmost community.

Jim Kizzar, sporting a 7-to-8 inch long beard, is once again Santa Claus, a role he plays in various places over the holiday season.

“We arrive and hit the lights and siren, the kids are looking out the window and the first thing they see is Santa getting off the truck,” said Kizzar, 61, a government retiree.

“When the kids come running outside and then they have to go back inside because they don’t have shoes or a jacket on, it just fills you heart,” said Brandon McDonald, 17, who has been delivering presents with his parents via the fire truck since he was 10 years old.

“We go into places that are not in that good of shape but the kids just beam with joy,” Kizzar said. “Santa has come to see them and brought them something.”

He relishes his role as Santa and remembers eating one day at Chick-fil-A wearing black pants and a white shirt when a little girl, 3 or 4 years old, came up and tugged his shirt.

“She hugs me and says, ‘I love you Santa Claus’ and my eyes starting sweating,” said Kizzar. “It is all about the kids.”

Tales of generosity lace the 15-year legacy of the event, such as spontaneous donations when the volunteer firefighters go en masse to Wal-Mart’s and load 40-50 shopping carts with gifts to be wrapped later.

And sometimes there are extenuating circumstances.

“Four or five years ago a house on Hayfield Road burnt down and the family had nowhere to stay,” said Don Jackson, Gainesboro’s Volunteer Fire Chief since 2003.

“A local developer had a house that was due to be torn down in a year and he let the family stay rent-free and paid for all their utilities until they could get back on their feet,” Jackson remembers.

And while there is a budget to spend on each family, sometime the Christmas spirit overwhelms the budget.

“Sometimes they go over and pay the difference from their own pockets,” said Mark McDonald’s wife Rose, who interviews families for ages, needed clothing sizes, plus what the kids want. She is also leader in three area 4H clubs that sponsor two needy children.

A pumpkin roll sale and a pajama party with Santa were held this year by the fire department to raise enough to spend roughly $125-$150 per child.

Teachers from two area elementary schools – Gainesboro and Indian Hollow – selected the families.

Melissa Barb, a first grade teacher at Middletown Elementary School and a Gainesboro firefighter, has helped since the program started.

Mitch Grimm was the Gainesboro fire chief in 2000 who came up with the idea and shared with other area fire departments.

“When Mitch passed away (in 2003) everyone said we had to pick up the pieces and we did,” said Jackson, with the department taking sole responsibility for the program.

“We’re a brotherhood and it was important to him so it was important to us,” he said. “I’ll be honest. We can’t not do it. We were raised to give back and when I see what is needed and see that list of what they ask for, it’s a really good feeling knowing we can help. We’re not rich but we can still give. No kid should have to sleep on the floor, Christmas or not. “

“A lot of parents say if it wasn’t for us, their kids wouldn’t have a Christmas,” said Barb, 36. “And when you go and see a house that looks good outside but inside there are no couches, no beds, it makes you realize how lucky you are.”

Said the mother of four: “I’m excited and hope (the arrival of the fire truck) will give us some cheer before the holiday and next year maybe things will turn around and look up for us again.”