FORT LEE, Va. (Dec. 14, 2017) -- Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has gotten pretty good at playing Santa Claus.

His resume of experience includes four years of service as a “shopping buddy” during the annual Holiday Helper Open House at Fort Lee. The 2017 installment of those festivities took place Friday at the gift-giving organization’s toy store on Battle Drive.

McAuliffe walked into a building packed with installation command team representatives, family members and the junior enlisted personnel who would be among the first to select toys and winter clothing items for their children.

“I have the privilege of introducing a leader who is no stranger to our community,” stated Garrison Commander Col. Adam Butler as he introduced the governor. “He and his wife Dorothy have loyally supported Holiday Helper for the past four years. It is an example of his commitment to the welfare of U.S. service personnel in Virginia. Because of his example, we know without a doubt that elected representatives of this state understand and value our military mission.”

First acknowledging the great turnout for the event, McAuliffe noted how Holiday Helper brings the community together every year and accomplishes the awe-inspiring goal of giving the families of financially challenged military personnel a merrier holiday celebration.

“I extend my thanks to everyone who made this happen,” the governor remarked. “The context for today is the difference between where it all started 16 years ago in a small conference room with a few families being helped and this moment of celebrating a program that expects to deliver gifts to more than 1,200 children. It is truly remarkable.”

Military families at Fisher House – a lodging facility at the McGuire veteran’s hospital – are among the Holiday Helper gift recipients. The nonprofit organization also extends assistance invites to the National Guard and Reserve communities in the commonwealth. Reflecting on that far-reaching mission of support, McAuliffe said it relates to a primary goal of his administration – making Virginia the most active duty and veteran-friendly state in America.

“On behalf of the 8.5 million citizens of our great commonwealth, I want to thank all the men and women who have put on the cloth of this country,” said McAuliffe as he wrapped up his remarks. “Thank you for your service to our great nation. It is a sacrifice I understand as the son of a World War II Army captain and proud father of a U.S. Marine presently deployed to Southeast Asia. (Dorothy and I) understand as parents the challenges all of you are facing, and you will always have our support.”

McAuliffe will wrap up his time as governor in January.

The open house continued with Christmas carols performed by preschoolers from the Battle Drive Child Development Center (video clip available at www.facebook.com/ArmyFortLee). Immediately afterward, a poem titled “Got Your Back” was read in four parts by a dependent child, the mom of a deployed Soldier, a military spouse and an active duty service member.

Holiday Helper organizers then paired visiting dignitaries and community leaders with military members who had been nominated for the gift assistance program. Pfc. Frederick Telles from Kenner Army Health Clinic was accompanied by Cathy Hurley – spouse of Maj. Gen. Paul C. Hurley Jr., CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general – as he shopped for his 4-year-old son, Avery. The garrison commander also supported the duo as they scanned ceiling-high shelves packed with donated playthings. Shared mutant-turtle memories and toy-truck comparisons usually erupted into bouts of laughter.

“This is one of the most fun things I’ve done since I arrived at Fort Lee,” Hurley said afterward. “How could you not enjoy helping a dad pick out toys for his son? And being part of this experience – seeing the excitement of the participants and how the community came together to make this happen – is absolutely heartwarming. We have traveled to 20 different duty locations, and I’ve never witnessed anything close to this scale. It’s amazing.”

Telles was equally impressed. “This is beyond anything I could have imagined happening in the civilian or military community,” he observed. “Hearing about the number of people who came together to make sure families like mine can have a better Christmas is pretty awesome in general. As a recipient of these gifts, I’m very thankful. It really means a lot to me personally.”

A clearly excited and jovial Virginia governor stood behind a gift-wrapping table nearby. He was putting the finishing touches on one of the gifts he and shopping buddy Spc. Robert Pierson selected for the quartermaster Soldier’s 6-month-old son, Jovani. “I have to apologize,” McAuliffe quipped, “Dorothy is a lot better at the gift-wrapping thing than I am.”

The significance of the moment was captured in his next comment. “We’re taking care of military families here,” he said. “That means a lot. It’s also a reminder to all of us that some are struggling and don’t have the money to spend on a Christmas meal or presents for their children. What we can do as a community has been exemplified by (the Holiday Helper) board, these caring volunteers and the many individuals and groups who stepped up in support of this program. What is happening here today is very special.”

Pierson summed the experience up as “one of the best days of his life.” Being paired with the governor was purely random, he noted, and he now can imagine what it must be like to win the lottery.

“Having someone recognize you and the things you’ve accomplished, as well as what families sacrifice by being a part of the military … it’s all hard to put into words, but it’s just outstanding,” he said. “I also feel blessed because I’m going to be here with my son and not deployed this Christmas. All of that combined is just overwhelming. As someone on the receiving end, I just want everyone to know that it’s really appreciated.”