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Joe Howell and the Westmoreland Department of Social Services helped provide over 6,000 toys to warm the hearts of children during the holiday season. And with the polar vortex sweeping frigid cold into Virginia this week, Joe and his DSS colleagues were already back in business collecting coats, hats, scarves and gloves to warm the bodies of families in need.

Thanks to a generous donation from Northern Neck Chevrolet in Montross, warm clothing covered the table in the conference room in the DSS offices at the A.T. Johnson Human Services Complex on King’s Highway Monday.

“We are working year around,” Howell said. “I am collecting all of the time. We keep a list of people in need of things and try to match them with what we collect.”

Howell, a Westmoreland County native, has worked at DSS for 24 years and for the past 16 years he has been the special projects coordinator in charge of collecting and distributing items to families in need of assistance.

“We’re here just in case people need help,” Howell said. “We want this to be a supplement to people’s needs. The families we’ve helped many times, when they are on their feet, give back so they can help others who are going through what they went through.”

Donations to DSS come in all year round, but Thanksgiving and Christmas are peak time of need for most families. Howell’s staff and volunteers provided Thanksgiving boxes of food to families in need across the county during the holidays and at Christmas provided toys for 346 children and food and gifts for 81 elderly citizens, many of them living alone.

Over the years DSS has worked closely with the Bob Fox Project, a 30-year-old Christmas giving effort named for a former Westmoreland County Commonwealth’s Attorney. But recently funding for the Bob Fox Project has been reduced and DSS has turned to other sources for donations.

“There are so many generous people in Westmoreland County and in this area,” Howell said. “Northern Neck Chevrolet brought in a ton of coats, hats, scarves and gloves last Friday.”

“At Christmas, the students and employees of the Westmoreland County schools provided toys and cash that we used to buy $25 gift cards,” Howell said. Civic organizations like the Moose and the Eagles and churches throughout Westmoreland County also provide assistance to DSS.

“Last year Ebenezer United Methodist Church provided coats, gloves and boots; Grace United Methodist Church helped provide Thanksgiving for families in need; Jerusalem Baptist Church adopted families in need as did Grant United Methodist Church.”

“We get donations from Catholic Charities and from the Salvation Army. And there are many business and individuals who are so helpful,” said Howell. “Lynn Norris of the Kinsale Foundation gave us $1,500 and Connie and John Ihlenfeld of Colonial Beach buy items for families in need all year long. They are just fantastic.”

Howell said families in need of warm coats, hats or gloves can contact him at 804-493-9305 at the DSS office in Montross. “My heart feels like it is going to explode with joy when I see all of the ways we can help people,” Howell said.

“Our family didn’t have much when I was growing up, Christmas was an orange, maybe a piece of chocolate and sometimes pajamas,” Howell said. “In those days, I always said: ‘I am going to do something for people.’”

And, with the help of the hard-working people at DSS and the hundreds of generous Westmoreland County volunteers and donors, it is clear that Howell has been successful beyond measure.

Richard Leggitt

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