NEWS | Dec. 16, 2016

NRL celebrates 50 years of fellowship during annual children’s holiday party

By Michael Hart

A light rain fell under gray skies during a 40-degree morning Dec. 12, as four buses full of school-aged children -- pre-kindergarten to 7th grade -- arrived at building 222 on the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Braking gently at the curb, the bus doors opened with a familiar hiss, and one by one, 90 boys and girls came pouring onto the sidewalk, eager, excited and ready for a great day.

They were visiting NRL for the 50th Annual Children’s Holiday Party, an event where food, fun, friendship, joy and laughter rule the day.

As the kids moved down a hallway toward the auditorium to meet Santa, one little fella, barely three-feet tall, seemed more than ready to jump start the day’s festivities. “Where’s Santa?” he asked, head peering around each corner. “I’m looking for Santa.”

The kindergartener, along with his fellow students, got what he was looking for, as the jolly elf and Mrs. Claus were the first event on the day’s agenda.

Each student met the globe-trotting couple for a photo and good wishes before settling in for a day full of Christmas caroling, a dance contest, a Q&A session with the lab’s commanding officer, Capt. Mark Bruington (“Do you work or play on the lab?” “Have you been around the world?” and “How’d you get your ribbons?” were just a few of the questions asked), a visit by Ronald McDonald and a performance by ventriloquist Willie Brown.

Bruington explained some of his ribbons to the curious students and confirmed that he has traveled around the globe a few times. Between jokes, Brown and his “dummy” Woody, encouraged the kids to “treat others with respect, always do your best and continue to work hard for good grades.”

The day would not have been complete without a lunch of hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, cookies and drinks.

“I’m having a great time,” said 1st grader Valencia Millner, while munching a handful of potato chips. “The dance contest was a lot fun.”

The 6-year old wasn’t the only one having a good time. NRL has hosted the holiday party every year since 1966 for neighboring students from the District’s Ward 8 community. The students selected to visit the lab may not have any Christmas otherwise, according to NRL volunteers. So they’re more than eager to help their neighbors.

“I love the concept of giving back and helping the community,” said Cindy Allen, who works in NRL’s supply division and has been volunteering for 30 years. Allen, along with co-workers Judy Hope and Linda Brown, are the event’s main organizers. “It feels good to help provide a Christmas for children who might need it,” Allen said.

According to Allen, the NRL community funds the annual event through donations and fund raisers such as cook outs and bake sales.

Dr. Josh Caldwell, a researcher at the lab, is one of numerous donators for this year’s party. “I feel strongly that we need to do as much as we can to offer opportunities to all,” he said, “especially those who might not get those opportunities otherwise.

“This is an ideal opportunity to give back,” Caldwell said.

There are nine elementary schools in Ward 8 that participate in the holiday partnership with the lab – Garfield, Hendley, Leckie, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Patterson, Savoy, Simon and Turner. Lab volunteers usually host 120 students from four of the nine schools each year. Because this is holiday party’s 50-year anniversary, NRL leadership and volunteers decided months ago that 10 hand-selected students from all nine schools would help celebrate the big event.

“It’s important to be active in the local community,” said Bruington, days before the party. Famous for participating in the dance contest with the students, Bruington said the significance for him is “seeing so many kids … their enthusiasm, excitement and participation” in the day’s events. “It’s infectious,” he said. “It’s better to give than to receive,” he continued. “Who better to give to than your neighbors.”

“This is a good thing the lab is doing,” said Donald Ross, a school psychologist at Leckie, first-time attendee and one of several chaperones. “I can see this brings a lot of cheer to the kids,” he continued. “I hope the lab keeps this going.”

Smiles and laughter were the theme throughout the day as students were encouraged to treat others with respect, continue to work hard in school and at home and that the main purpose of the holiday season is giving.

“This has always been a heartwarming event,” said Roz Williams, a social worker at Garfield. This was Williams’ fifth holiday event. “This is a good thing,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for the kids.”

As the afternoon came to a close, there was still a buzz in the air as each student grabbed their coat before making their way back to the buses. One last thing -- there was still the matter of receiving a Santa-sized bundle of gifts to top off the day.

There were smiles all around as each student grabbed their Christmas goodies of toys, games, books, educational materials, hats and gloves, holiday candy and personal care items before loading up. Some of the sacks weighed as much as the kid. “What’s in here?” a little boy asked, tussling with his bag, looking like one of Santa’s helpers trying to load a sleigh.

Another little girl grabbed her holiday bag on the way out, and with a warm smile on her face, simply said, “Thank you.”

As volunteers, students and chaperones said their goodbyes, you couldn’t help but notice the dreary skies had given way to sunshine and an unseasonable 50-plus degrees.

It was a great day.