Northern Virginians of the Year

They walk among us, going about their daily tasks. But in their humble ways they are giving back to the community we call home.

By Natalie Kaar, Shannon McNeely, Amanda H. Millward and Lynn Norusis / Photography by Jonathan Timmes

They walk among us, going about their daily tasks. But in their humble ways they are giving back to the community we call home. Here we honor Northern Virginians who are fighting to bring an end to breast cancer, helping young girls gain self-esteem, a woman who makes the short lives of infants struck with disease a moment of warm embraces, and others, who make this area a better place to live.


Katy Mitarai
Katy Mitarai

Katy Mitarai
Expectant parents often leave their 20-week sonogram exhilarated. Yet for some parents, the sonogram is the first sign of a frightening situation.

Katy Mitarai and her husband, Chris, were first notified of a potential problem when a technician spotted something suspicious with their daughter’s heart. Katy recalls, “At first I didn’t think it was anything serious … Then the doctor [came in and] got tears in his eyes.” A later amniocentesis revealed Trisomy 13, an extremely rare genetic disorder (odds of a baby having it: 1 in 10,000), and a heart condition. The Mitarais learned that their daughter would be very lucky to live a month, assuming she survived pregnancy and delivery.

While many doctors recommended terminating the pregnancy, the Mitarais instead used every second of the pregnancy—reading children’s books, visiting the zoo, etc.—to bond with their child. Katy says, “We tried to make as many memories as we could. She was our first daughter.”

Abigail Mitarai was born on April 28, 2009, and lived 14 “miraculous” hours, wrapped up in warm embraces and ultra-soft handmade blankets—which Katy says still have “that sweet baby smell” and provide tremendous comfort.

Those blankets, along with the story of a friend who lost a baby at 20 weeks, left without a special memento, led Katy and friend Ilse Baldwin, maker of one of Abigail’s wraps, to found the non-profit Angel HUGS. The organization makes handmade blankets for special babies like Abigail with tragically short lives. Katy says, “My goal is to eventually have blankets in every hospital in the U.S.” For now, they’re in D.C., Virginia and Utah.

Katy loves knowing the blankets provide comfort, and seeing Abigail live on. “For my daughter to continue to have a legacy here on this earth has helped my heart heal.” —NK


Alexis Simpson
Alexis Simpson

Alexis Simpson
Knowing the pressures that young girls go through in the formative years of middle school, Alexis Simpson took it upon herself “to do something greater than myself,” says the 18-year-old senior at C.D. Hylton Senior High School in Woodbridge.

Simpson lost her mother at a very young age, but was lucky enough to have a support system in place. “Some girls going through rough times don’t have that support system,” she says.

Her junior year, Simpson mentored a young girl, and was astounded at the rapid growth in her demeanor, self-esteem and overall attitude from the relationship.

“Seeing how much it made an impact, I sat down with friends, and we worked all summer putting together workshops and proposals” to allow other girls to be part of the same experience.

Simpson and her group pitched the “It’s All About M.E.” mentor program to the administration at Hylton, and now 25 high school girls work with 25 fourth- and fifth-grade girls at Fannie W. Fitzgerald Elementary School. (School counselors at the elementary school recommend the program to parents of girls who they feel would benefit.) “These girls come in saying, ‘I think I’m ugly,’ but now show so much confidence,” explains Simpson.

The results Simpson has seen from the year-long program have given much reason for pushing to have the program in schools across Prince William County—a process she is currently working on by setting up an umbrella non-profit, and will continue even after she begins her next stage of life, college. —LN


Nicholas Hartigan
Nicholas Hartigan

Nicholas Hartigan
As if starting his own business weren’t enough, Nicholas Hartigan has relentlessly given to the community in more ways than one. Hartigan is the heart and soul of his company “Off Peak Training,” which he supervises from his home in Reston. The drive for community involvement was sparked by Hartigan’s bold decision to pursue his business dream while, at the same time, sustaining his passionate commitment to his family. “When I was able to have my own business, I had an incredible amount of free time. I realized I wanted to be involved in the community and set a good example for my son,” says Hartigan.

In 2010, Hartigan personally established the Reston Challenge, a non-profit which holds an annual charity scavenger hunt. Aware of his family ties to Alzheimer’s disease, Hartigan was able to donate $1,000 for the cause. The next Reston Challenge will be held on October 29. A community vote will determine the 2011 recipient. However, this isn’t Hartigan’s only major feat.

In the same year, Hartigan formed the Reston chapter of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, also known as the Reston Jaycees. This organization caters to young professionals interested in leadership growth. “I wanted to join, but there wasn’t a chapter in Reston. I thought, why not start a chapter?” explains Hartigan. The creation had ties to Hartigan’s desire for other young professionals to get involved within the community. This year, the Reston Jaycees will perform a number of outreach events, which will be determined based on local businesses and non-profit organizations’ feedback as to how the public can be served. The Jaycees currently houses 25 members, and is looking to recruit young professionals in the Dulles and Reston areas. —SM


Robin Sailer
Robin Sailer

Robin Sailer
Donating money to a charity wasn’t what Robin Sailer considered when she wanted to make a difference; she wanted to get involved and help, but, more importantly, she wanted to help women. She is the epitome of the true go-give spirit with her various charities and works that she is involved with in the community. Sailer’s commitment to helping others started after watching the movie “Pay It Forward.” The concept of passing on a good deed to help change another person’s life instead of simply paying someone back for a good deed resonated with her.

Of course Sailer knew she couldn’t do it alone, so she also recruited her Mary Kay sales unit of over 200 consultants to help in her endeavor. “I figured if every single consultant did something for someone else, the power of that is significant,” explains Sailer, an independent sales rep with the company.

Her first initiative was to gather supplies for “rooms-to-go”—providing laundry baskets filled with supplies for the kitchen or bathroom or any other room in a house—for local domestic violence shelters, who in turn allocate them to women who are ready to leave their abusive households.

Every February, Sailer supports “Go Red for Women” by passing out a flyer to all consultants and clients that explains the signs and signals of a heart attack. One of Sailer’s proudest moments while working on the campaign was finding out that two of her clients’ lives were saved because they read the flyer and recognized that they were having a heart attack.

Sailer also runs a drive to collect school supplies for children in Africa; gathers supplies for Angels for Soldiers, donating men’s products and sunscreen for our military overseas; and participates in Breast Cancer Awareness Month by passing out personal breast exam shower cards. —AM


James Atkins
James Atkins

James Atkins
Struck with the devastating loss of his wife, Cheryl, to breast cancer in 2003, Middleburg resident Jim Atkins knew there had to be some way to follow through on her last wish: “When you can, give back.”

If discovered a year earlier, Cheryl may not have died, explains Atkins, but she missed a mammogram. “I lived through it,” says Atkins. “I was right there, through everything. I do this so another husband doesn’t experience the grief. I watched my own cherry blossom die, and so did I.”

In 2007, with the help of Sandi—one of Cheryl’s friends and Atkins’ current wife—and two other women (Mary Jo Jackson and Lizanne Driskill), Atkins founded the Cherry Blossom Breast Cancer Foundation (www.cherryblossombreastcancerfoundation.org), with a mission of eradicating breast cancer. A virtually insurmountable goal, Atkins says he strives for this on a local level by raising funds to help in any way possible. Last year the foundation granted Inova Loudoun $75,000 to buy a stereotactic breast biopsy system; three years ago it helped Fauquier Hospital acquire its first digital mammography system; and it has also helped approximately 400 local women get mammograms, who otherwise would not have been able to afford it.

“We are trying to help the women in the [Loudoun and Fauquier Counties] by organizing sponsors, running events, and keeping this on the forefront of everyone’s mind,” says Atkins. “We know we are making a difference.”

The annual Cherry Blossom Walks & 5K Runs for Breast Cancer will take place October 9, simultaneously, in Leesburg, Middleburg and Warrenton. Atkins’ goal is to host an event in Ashburn in 2012 or 2013, but he wants to keep the efforts focused on local women. “If you look at what the need is, we could easily help thousands if we had enough money and sponsors,” he explains. “But, we don’t think we should be a large regional [organization]. We help individuals, and [right now] we can directly see the individuals we are helping. It becomes very personal.” —LN


Sharon Rainey
Sharon Rainey

Sharon Rainey
If Sharon Rainey were to rework the theme song to “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” you can bet it’d include the words, “Won’t you help my neighbor?” In 2000, she took her lifelong habit of helping people—she says, “It’s a running joke in our family to always do the right thing … and helping others is always the right thing”—and built an online community network for her Great Falls neighbors, spurring everyone to help one another.

Today My Neighbors Network has 4,000 residents assisting their neighbors in Great Falls and beyond. MNN currently covers Fairfax County and parts of Loudoun County as well as Montgomery County, Md.; and Rainey says there is interest as far away as Massachusetts and North Carolina.

“People want to help just don’t know how,” she says, especially given today’s lack of face time. “You’re lucky if you even see your neighbors for six months.” If there’s a need, people are happy to fill it, she says, but they have to know about it first. From folks stuck in the snow and in need of shelter to a mother who wishes to have balloons awaiting her daughter upon her return home from a long hospital stay, the virtual community spreads the word about the actual community’s needs and responds in spades.

But Rainey’s reach doesn’t stop there. She also runs the 501(c)3 Neighbors Foundation, which sends care packages to the troops, including Girl Scout cookies (39,000 boxes to date); plus goodies to local police and firemen; and last year took over Great Falls’ 4th of July fireworks. A Lyme disease sufferer, Rainey is also co-writing a book on the subject, with her doctor, to be published in 2012. The two hope to dispel common misconceptions about the disease, from ways of contracting it to methods of treating it. —NK


(June 2011)



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