By Angela Woolsey/Fairfax County Times,
Rain pelted Vinson Hall Retirement Community in McLean on Tuesday just as afternoon gave way to evening, but the crowd seated under a tent on the roof of the Arleigh Burke Pavilion parking deck refused to let the downcast weather put a damper on their spirits.
About 185 people, including residents, volunteers, and first responders, gathered on Aug. 1 to eat food and make conversation at the retirement community’s 2nd annual National Night Out event.
“That was probably the best decision we made,” Vinson Hall COO Michael Hendee said of the tent sheltering the event attendees.
The Vinson Hall dinner was one of hundreds of National Night Out events in Fairfax County, and one of thousands held around the U.S., as part of an annual campaign aimed at bringing community members together to show their appreciation for local police, firefighters, and other first responders.
The Pennsylvania-based National Association of Town Watch, which provides resources and information to community watch groups, launched the National Night Out program in 1984 with a network of law enforcement agencies, neighborhood watch groups, crime prevention associations, and civic groups.
Originally intended to organize the public in a night of front-porch vigils, the first National Night Out involved 2.5 million people in 400 communities across 23 states, according to the campaign’s website.
Still scheduled for the first Tuesday of August every year, National Night Out events now range from block parties and cookouts to safety demonstrations and youth activities. In 2017, the campaign attracted 38 million people in 16,000 communities from all 50 states, U.S. territories, and military bases.
Fairfax County alone hosted 211 different events this year, according to Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) Lt. Gregory Fried, who works in the agency’s research and planning bureau.
Due to the sheer volume of events, the police department sends officers to different locations based on their district station.
A crime prevention officer in each of the county’s eight district stations coordinates with local homeowners’ associations, neighborhood watches, and other groups hosting events to develop lists of event locations that are then distributed to individual officers.
While officers are sometimes assigned to specific events, many of them also just volunteer, says Fried, who was photographed grabbing ice cream at an event in the Middleridge neighborhood of Fairfax by the FCPD’s official Twitter account.
“We’re continuously working to build our community partnerships and engage with the community that we serve,” Fried said. “…The stronger our relationships and partnerships are, the more effectively we’ll be able to deliver the type of service they deserve.”
In addition to the Fairfax County police, public safety agencies participating in National Night Out included the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue, and the Office of Emergency Management.
For its second National Night Out event, Vinson Hall got visits from the McLean Volunteer Fire Department as well as the FCPD, which sent its mascot, McGruff the Crime Dog, along with a handful of officers.
Vinson Hall held its first National Night Out event in 2016, and the retirement community leaders decided to bring it back after that initial success.
“We wanted to do something where we could give back not only to the community, but also the first responders who help us out in emergencies and ambulance calls,” Hendee said. “It’s just our way of saying thank you and making it a community event.”
Chain Bridge Bank, which has a branch in McLean, served as a sponsor for the event, providing both financial and logistical support. About 15 outside volunteers also assisted the retirement community staff.
Vinson Hall residents, neighbors, and first responders mingled over hot dogs and hamburgers, while attendees were also treated with a face-painting table and balloon cart.
For Vinson Hall resident Sandra Hawkins, this event is particularly meaningful, because she is technically a certified emergency medical technician (EMT) after serving as a medic in the U.S. Air Force for 26 years.
“It’s nice when you’re recognized, because there are a lot of people that do a lot of things and it just goes unrecognized,” Hawkins, who lives in the Wounded Warrior Transitional Housing that opened at Vinson Hall in 2013, said. “When they have something like this to honor them, it’s great.”
Other National Night Out attendees at Vinson Hall were equally interested in meeting with first responders and getting the chance to interact with the wider community around the retirement home.
Carol Saunders is part of Vinson Hall’s independent living community and serves on a committee that plans education, entertainment, and excursion opportunities for residents, though much of the programming is also open to the general public.
Saunders says that she missed Vinson Hall’s first National Night Out event because she was traveling at the time, but she made sure to attend this year, particularly after learning that members of a nearby church had been invited.
“It’s nice to be part of the community,” Saunders said.