Caring for our community
Hearts and Hands Reaching Out
Meet the moms looking out for the little things
A staff member hugs a graduate at Fairfax County’s 2023 foster care graduation celebration. (Photo: Fairfax County Department of Family Services)
$1,000 can do a lot for a small organization. That’s why Vice President and Portfolio Manager Shannon Gibbs decided to donate to Hearts and Hands Reaching Out, a small organization in her community in Chantilly, Virginia that helps disadvantaged teens with things like sports equipment, graduation celebrations, and supplies for college.
“It’s small but it’s making a difference in somebody’s life,” explained Jan Gardill, the organization’s treasurer and one of its founders.
Shannon is good friends with Jan and another founder, Barb Johnson.
Jan, Barb, and Joyce Lynn are the three women who founded Hearts and Hands Reaching Out, or HHRO for short. They became friends through their children, who are all close in age. They would meet up at school events or sport meets, and get to chatting with other parents in the community.
“We would hear of things like, ‘oh did you hear that so-and-so got denied lunch?’” Jan said. “Just these stories of needs in the community.”
Jan, Barb, and Joyce kept thinking – if they only knew what was going on, they could help.
So they decided to do something about it and in 2009, they officially founded HHRO.
Some of their early projects included making blankets for the families of sick kids staying at Ronald McDonald House in Fairfax. But Jan says it took some work to find a niche where they could do the most good.
“None of us had really started a nonprofit before,” she said. “We weren’t quite sure how to reach out [or] who to reach out to.”
They first looked towards elementary schools. But soon discovered that elementary-aged children already had a network of charities, volunteers, and faith organizations helping them out.
“It seemed like a lot of the churches and other more organized folks were already dipping in there,” Jan said. “We found that everyone wants to help the little kids… it’s the teens in the community that kind of get lost.”
So they started reaching out to high schools and working with the counselors there. If the schools came across a student who couldn’t afford the goggles they needed to join the swim team, or who couldn’t pay for a ticket to prom, HHRO could step in to help.
It wasn’t long before the organization got in contact with Fairfax County Family Services, where Jan, Barb, and Joyce found the population they’ve been able to help the most: foster teens.
“They’re very, very resilient. Very admirable for what they’ve had to go through,” Jan said. “They’ve been through so much, and they’re just kids.”
HHRO partners with social workers to make sure the foster teens in their community can enjoy the little things in life that they might not be able to otherwise.
They make sure the teens get something special for their “sweet sixteen” birthday, often buying gift cards for their social workers to take them out for a nice birthday dinner.
“[The] biggest thing that we do is we provide gift bags and gifts for foster teens who are graduating high school,” Jan said.
According to Fairfax County, only about 60% of foster youth graduate from high school by the age of 19. That’s only slightly higher than the national average of 50%.
“For them to persevere and stay with it and get their high school diploma…It’s a huge accomplishment,” Jan said. “And many of them are going on to college.”
Left: Gifts for 2020 graduates. (Photo: Fairfax County Department of Family Services); Right: Packaged gift bags for 2023 graduates. (Photo: Jan Gardill)
They initially got the suggestion to give stuffed bears or candy bars to the graduates.
But Jan says they wanted the teens to get something a little nicer – like a gift you might get if your grandparents, aunts, or uncles were coming to celebrate your graduation.
This year they gave every graduate an Adidas duffle bag with wireless earbuds, a leather portfolio, a fountain pen, a phone charger, and a bath towel embroidered with the recipient’s name.
The gifts change from year to year, but always include a personalized towel – which the social workers say is a particular favorite.
“They were more excited about that towel than anything,” Jan said. “So, every year we said, darn it, we will make sure they have a towel. Every kid who’s graduating, will have a towel.”
This year, thanks to successful fundraisers and the donation from MainStreet Bank, HHRO was able to go above and beyond, helping a number of teens get laptops to take to college.
They gave a Chromebook to every graduate who needed a laptop, and a $250 gift card to those who needed other things, like a mini fridge for their college dorm room.
They were even able to provide a high tech laptop for a teen going off to an Ivy League college.
“We were so thrilled,” Jan said. “We had more than enough resources, through your donation added to it, to be able to get her custom-made computer for her as she starts her engineering degree.”
HHRO relies on seasonal fundraisers, like Super Bowl football squares: a game of chance where you buy a square on a numbered grid and win if your numbers match the game’s score at the end of each quarter.
“We don’t have a lot of money…but it adds up, right? A little bit here, a little bit there. I think we’re able to make a difference.”
HHRO is a labor of love, run by Jan, Barb, and Joyce in their free time.
“Every cent that we do goes right back into the community.” Jan said. “It goes right back into a child who has an identified need that we’re able to fill – and give them something that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Jan just retired and is excited to have more time and energy to put into HHRO.
With a high rate of turnover in schools and the foster system, they’ve lost many of their original contacts over the years.
But she’s ready to reenergize their outreach efforts by strengthening their community connections and building an official HHRO website.