Talk: Sebastian Grand

In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Sebastian Grand,  conductor of the McLean Symphony joined by Mary Brambley, Board Chair and viola player of the McLean Symphony. The all volunteer symphony — except for the conductor and the historian — meets for rehearsals weekly about nine months a year at the McLean Baptist Church and performs four or five concerts a year. Their next performance is Holiday Traditions, Saturday December 9, at the Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Vienna [to purchase tickets:].


Q. How did you get involved with the McLean Symphony?

Mary: I was tricked. I grew up in the area and then I left for about a decade. And when I came back, [Brambley’s day job is as the development officer for Historic Alexandria] my friend who I was band partners with in high school, was like, ‘”Hey, why don’t we hang out now that you’re back in the area?” I said, Absolutely. So we went to a baseball game together. She got us tickets. We’re having a great time. And then out of nowhere, she goes, “Oh, by the way, I play in the McLean Symphony and they need more violas. Do you think you could join?” She had no idea if I was still playing. She didn’t know anything. She just randomly asked me, and I was like, Did you ask me to this baseball game so you could try to get me to play in the symphony? And she was like, “Yeah.” So that’s how I got back into it. So I started in September of 2015.

Sebastian: I really love working with community orchestras because they’re very unique to the places where they are and the communities that they’re kind of integral to and a part of. I got the sense pretty much immediately that it was a very kind of close-knit special group of people that had a really good track record of over 50 years of performing and had the potential to really continue to grow and serve the community musically. And then personally, for me, it was also about expanding my conducting career. I already have four orchestras that I work with [Grand is the Music Director of the Delaware County Symphony, PA, and holds Assistant Conductor positions with the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey and the Bucks County Symphony Orchestra, and conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia in an annual series] but the opportunity to regularly work with another group every week and build that relationship is always a really special opportunity. It’s proven to be, in just our first concert I already feel really welcomed and accepted and a part of the part of the community, which is great.

Q. How did you get to this point in your musical careers?

Sebastian: I started off, I’m a pianist and a cellist, and I still play the piano quite a bit but the last two or three years it really has shifted so that it’s much more conducting now than anything else. So really when I was in college, that’s maybe 15 years ago now, I conducted in my music program and then from that ran my own orchestra for about eight years. So through the process of doing those two things I was like, This is going to be an important part of my music making for sure. And then when I really started getting roles with previously established organizations, other community orchestras, some professional orchestras, some youth orchestras, and really the opportunity to work with people and to make music. I view conducting as really a very collaborative process. It’s not dictatorial at all, it’s about just trying to get the best out of people and developing relationships with people that allow them to play well.

Mary [pictured below]: I joined the Symphony in 2015 and then almost immediately went on the board. I play viola and then I’m also the board chair. I also happen to run the email. I was doing that before I was board chair. Nobody wants to take over it because they’re fearful that that’s the board chair’s job. I’m like, No, no, no. I just never stopped playing, since I was nine. It’s been 29 years. I was a music major for a little bit, but I realized that that’s not what I wanted to do. So I didn’t graduate with it. I’d done a lot. I went pretty far with it, but I didn’t never finish. I knew I was never going to be a musician. So I think I just played because I enjoyed playing.  

Sebastian Grand, the McLean Symphony’s new conductor —  only it’s second in it’s 53-year history. That role and the Symphony’s librarian are the only paid positions of the active roster of the about 75 volunteer musicians who over the years have ranged from high schoolers to 80somethings.

Q. Sebastian, you’re from Guernsey, UK, in terms of your work, in terms of music, what surprised you most when you began conducting here?

Sebastian: I was really surprised, in a good way for the most part, particularly with regard to how much is going on. America doesn’t necessarily project the most culturally interesting and diverse image when you’re outside of the big cities. But I think what I was really pleased about was, Okay, so you don’t have to be in New York or Philadelphia or the center of DC to find like really enriching culture. For me career wise, that was just wonderful to find out about and and also life lifestyle wise to know that you can live in the suburbs and still still have a huge amount going on.

Q. What are some of the goals now for the McLean Symphony as it’s first new director in 53 years? 

Sebastion: There’s a lot of networking to be done, a lot of possible collaborations to be done. Personally, I would love to do something with a chorale or a choir in the area. That would be a wonderful opportunity. There’s things you can do with ballet companies and other art forms. There’s certain music where you can collaborate with the visual arts —  you can have pictures or paintings that represent music. And then there’s a lot of collaboration you can do on the education side, building outreach projects and trying to get younger people more involved in the orchestra too.

[In terms of music] I think you’re really trying to find music and repertoire that suits the audience. McLean Symphony has always had a tradition of doing some repertoire that is unusual. Trying to find the right balance between continuing to explore things that have been unnecessarily neglected, but also to do some real popular works that you just guarantee that everyone’s going to enjoy. Basically to continue to try and build the standard of the orchestra. We’re always interested to hear from new players, particularly in the string sections, if they’ve had orchestral experience or playing experience in the past, and to try and be the kind of hub where if you are a musician and you’re in the area, this is the orchestra that you should come to if you want to be challenged and play really good quality orchestral music.

Mary: We are a non-profit, so fundraising is very key to what we do. It’s how we stay alive. A former player left us a very generous bequest about a decade ago and we are coming to the end of that bequest. We need to really ramp up what we’re doing because we count on ticket sales, we count on sponsorships, we have a program book and people can buy ads in it. It’s counting on the generosity of people and now we’re trying to expand it because I think we came out of COVID, we had an amazing 50th anniversary and now we’re ready to move on to the next thing and be even bigger than where we were. More people know about us because of the 50th anniversary so we’re just trying to like hit on that while we’re still a little bit hot. Last year was kind of a shock year that we thankfully got through and now we have Sebastian. So now it’s like, Okay, let’s, let’s pick back up running.

Q. Your next concert is your holiday show, December 9, tell me about it and what are some of your favorite holiday pieces?

Sebastian: Wth this concert, we’ve got a really nice kind of mixture because we’ve got a bit of a Nutcracker in there, which obviously people have holiday traditions of going to see. We’ve got some Strauss Waltzes which are always associated with the New Year and we’ve got some really fun stuff like Jingle Bells, Frosty, Rudolph. It’s something for everyone and it’s on the lighter side which is I think why it appeals. I grew up with Christmas and holiday concerts every year growing up. I love the big carols, get the organ going, that atmosphere. That concert’s gonna be really special. 

Q. What should people, perhaps you haven’t yet experienced the McLean Symphony know about?

Sebastian: There’s two key takeaways for me. The first one is that we’re there to play music right in this community that people would enjoy coming to. It’s accessible, it’s interesting, you’re up close and personal, you’re right there, super close to the orchestra, which you don’t always get in these big concert halls. And, there’s a concert for everyone. Even if you’re, Okay, I don’t wanna go see a big symphony, come to the Christmas concert, or come to the Capital One Hall in June where it’s small selections of different pieces. So there’s a real concept for everyone. And then the second one is just the link to the players — if there are players interested that want to come and try us out, then we are an outlet for their musicality. We’re doing really well in terms of numbers, but it’s always good for people to be aware that we’re here because so much talent just gets like put into the closet.


Q. Do you have a favorite McLean restaurant spot you all go to together?

Mary: The Italian Oven is a great supporter of ours. That’s been there forever. We love working with Sal, and they’re located just right near where we rehearse.

Gayle Jo Carter is the editor of McLean Today.

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Talk: Sam Simon

In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Sam Simon — a longtime McLean resident, playwright and actor. Simon, 78, started his career in Washington, D.C. as a lawyer for Ralph Nader’s first advocacy group and then spent 25 years as head of a public affairs firm. Simon calls his playwriting and theatre work his “4th Age.” His first play, The Actual Dance, Love’s Ultimate Journey Through Breast Cancer, starting touring in 2013 and in 2021 was turned into an award-winning biography.  His new play, Dementia Man, An Existential Journey is the autobiographical story of a man who faces his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Simon was diagnosed in 2018 with Mild-Cognitive Impairment and in 2021 with Early-Stage Alzheimer’s.  He is currently under medical treatment and a participant in a drug trial. 


Q. How did you get into directing and performing plays?

I started doing theatrical improv as a personal development tool after I had stopped working, as an older gentleman. I got involved in a theater group in New York. My journey with playwriting started [when] my wife got very sick and was not expected to survive. I was into playwriting so I ended up writing a play about that, called The Actual Dance, Love’s Ultimate Journey through Breast Cancer to talk about her situation and impact. Afterwards, about a year ago, I wrote a play called Dementia Man, An Existential Journey on how my life began to change. 

Q. What was your motivation to create the play about your Alzheimer’s journey?

Around 2018, I was having some confusion… and I was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s. And when you get a disease, there’s another word for it right? Dementia is an ugly and dirty word which I’ve learned to despise. When you get a very serious diagnosis, because there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, you struggle with what to do with your life. My therapist encouraged me to write a play about it about a year ago. I got very strong encouragement [from] people I [knew] at the theater world to write about it. It is very important for me, and very important particularly I hope for the cognitively impaired world. 

Sam Simon, performing his play Dementia Man, An Existential Journey. Simon has performed his one-man show at venues including the DCJCC as part of the Washington D.C. Capital Fringe Festival, Temple Rodef Shalom, area senior living spaces and the Cascades Library in Potomac Falls. On November 3, he’ll take Dementia Man, An Existential Journey to the Frederick Community College Jack B. Kussmaul Theater in Frederick, Maryland.  The performance will be followed by a talk-back session featuring Mr. Simon, Daisy Lopez-Duke, LCPC, and other local experts. Hosted by the Frederick County Division of Aging and Independence. Free, no registration required.

Q. Tell us about your play Dementia Man, An Existential Journey?

The idea of this play is that.. now that I know I have a terminal disease, I’m transforming [into] someone else. What should I do? What are my choices? And ultimately, that is the question of the play and it presents that struggle. I learned I’m not the only one who has that struggle. The play is not about my acting. It’s about what the play [is] about. Some people say I’m a good actor but I think it’s an unheard, rare voice, not a unique voice, a unique topic that somebody with the disease gets up there and talks about how you confront this uncertain future. 

My purpose of this play is to describe a journey where you confront [this] different and difficult disease. You challenge the modern narratives of — first of all the term ‘dementia’ is a degrading, despicable term. I’m not crazy. These are words that are in the play; I’m not crazy, I’m not insane, I’m not mad. I’m just profoundly cognitively impaired, forgetful and on my way to transforming to be someone else. I have no idea when I’ll remember or not. 

Q. What is the impact of your play on the audience? 

I have trouble sometimes finding places and I forget a lot of recent events which I acknowledged in the play. Because it’s hard to conceive of somebody who is the stereotype of a person with dementia. And so the main question is: how do you help a person like that? And the worst thing you can do is encourage people to hide it, and that’s the current narrative. If you’re feeling memory impaired or cognitively impaired and you’re worried… about getting it checked out, don’t be afraid. Right now, people hide. People are ashamed and they blame themselves. And so part of my goal is to speak out and say Wow, look at me, I have this disease. I am a human being and I deserve and can have the same dignity as any other human being with a little help. And that’s how I end the play, I’m gonna do this for as long as I can, with the help of family, friends, doctors and maybe with the help of the audience members to be open. I want it to inspire people.

Q. When did you create the play, how long did it take to rehearse?

There was a lot of writing involved. I started writing in October of last year, I [had] an idea of what I wanted to do by early January with a dramaturg. They are coaches with expertise in theater and plays and they help you craft the dramatic art of the show. I hired my dramaturge, the same person I work with to write my earlier play. We had a draft by May. Same thing happened [with] my other play, as we never stopped rehearsing and we never stopped changing. I will have a new direction, I think in a year or couple of years. I will probably add or adapt some things. I write as I get feedback from the audience. I’ve had over 100 people at my plays. And you get to learn from the audience, I hear people’s stories. That makes me understand my story differently. 

Q. When did you move to McLean?

We have been living here in McLean for 53 years. McLean is a great spot, my [two] kids and [two of my] grandkids grew up here, and I enjoy the community.

Q. Do you like to eat Favorite McLean restaurant spot?

We love McLean Family Restaurant. I used to have lunch every Friday at MFR with my friend.

Dania Reza is the social media content curator for McLean Today. She is a senior at McLean High School and is the design editor-in-chief of her award-winning school news magazine, The Highlander. 

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Talk: Donna Shore

In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Donna Shore, the manager of Roots Kitchen and Bar. Since 2021, Roots —at 8100 Old Dominion Drive— has held a special place in the McLean community —  as a gathering place to meet friends and neighbors while enjoying a coffee or a cocktail; a place to eat-in or take out a fresh, local, healthy meal or perhaps to grab a bottle of wine or some other grocery item.

Q. What was the inspiration behind creating Roots?

The three owners of Roots wanted to bring [to] McLean something they thought was missing — a local hidden gem that catered to the guests living there —  to provide great food, a small provision center where people could just jump in, grab a bottle of wine, whatever they need, but also just grab a bite. Roots [has] a little bit of everything, it’s a bar that has a coffee shop, and a sandwich shop. But it is really supposed to be community based. When we found our location, there was already a provision and sandwich shop that was in this one location. So we took over that, changed the name, and expanded into the space next door to create the bar. 

Q. You opened the business in 2021 during the peak pandemic. How was business like when you first opened?

It was slow, very slow. We’ve actually picked up significantly which is really exciting. And people have great confidence in us and loyalty. More guests are now coming so we’re super excited about the future.

At Roots, you can enjoy fresh, quality ingredients in all their scratch cooking.

Q. Why did you choose to open Roots in McLean?

McLean didn’t have something like this before, and the owners actually live locally, right down the street. They wanted a place that was based in the community which was needed in that strip on Old Dominion. That was really why it was created. 

Q. Is there a story behind the name “Roots”?

We wanted to be “rooted” in the community. So that is actually where the name “Roots” came from. When people find out about this place… they send their friends over. So people from [Tysons] Boro now come by and we’ve been getting a younger crowd that was a little bit further than the community that we are touching, which is really exciting.

Q. What food specialities do you have at Roots?

We run seasonal items. We want this place to be family based, so we have a great kids menu. We get a lot of people from McLean High School that come after school. We finally expanded the menu to have some different sandwich options, but also some entree options so people can come to the bar and enjoy the sports game with their friends and get to have a meal. We’ve expanded that menu to have some vegetarian options and vegan options as well. During the NFL season, we do dollar wings. We also redid the whole bar and it has a lot of what we call “dessert drinks”. We also make some speciality coffee drinks because we are a coffee house as well. 

Q. Is Roots a breakfast, lunch, or dinner spot?

It depends on each day of the week. We host local bands, for the people local to the area that enjoy playing music for the community. We have them come in on Friday night. So that actually ends up being a really heavy evening. Saturdays are really busy. Breakfast busiest on Monday through Friday. During NFL season, the crowd picks up at nights, especially Sunday nights and we extend our hours for the games because we have so many large TVs. Trivia Night also is one of our biggest nights and that’s on Thursday.

Q. What are you favorite spots in McLean?

I really like going to the Mom and Pops shops, I like hitting those places that aren’t well known. You get to know the owners and that’s kind of what I focus on because there are a lot of bigger things in the area compared to small businesses.

Dania Reza is the social media content curator for McLean Today. She is a senior at McLean High School and is the design editor-in-chief of her award-winning school news magazine, The Highlander. 

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Talk: Amber Taylor

In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Amber Taylor, owner Fonts Books & Gifts, new independent bookstore opening in McLean in October.  In addition to books, Fonts will offer journaling supplies, greeting cards, puzzles, knitted gifts, and non-alcoholic spirits. Behind the store, there will be an outdoor reading nook that can fit eight to ten people.  

Q. Tell me the story of Fonts Books & Gifts. What made you decide to open a bookstore?

Because I’ve always loved books and I’ve always loved bookstores, especially community bookstores and we were definitely missing that. I was very happy when I discovered One More Page Books in Arlington, right on the border of Falls Church but I wanted something closer —  to give that to the McLean community. I was looking for somewhere not too far from my house, somewhere that needed a bookstore, and then with the revitalization at Chesterbrook it just felt like the right time. It’s pretty exciting to watch after living here for about ten years. I’ve been here at this house so nearby and it was kind of a sad space for a while. So I was like, Is it something that I can really do? Is it something that can be successful? Can I be successful at it?

Q. Obviously, you answered “Yes” to those questions. How did you get there?

I actually had my own communications consulting business for the last twelve years. So I’ve done my own books and run my own business in that way, but brick and mortar is definitely very different than that. I just started doing the research and there’s actually a couple who run a program that they help train people who want to own bookstores. So I went and spent a weekend with them at their store in Florida and went through their training and came back pretty excited. One of the tips that they offered was to really meet other local bookstore owners and talk with them and really get a feel for it. And so I think the day after I got back, I reached out to Eileen [McGervey] at One More Page Books and we had coffee and at the end of coffee, she was like: “If you really think you wanna do this, come and work for me and you can really see what it’s like.” That turned into Covid. It was not exactly what normal bookstore life is like, but I got to experience a crisis at a bookstore and figure our way through it. So it was amazing training. I just can’t thank her enough for that.

Q. When will you open?

We’re hoping mid-October. I was just texting this morning with my contractor trying to get that. Right now, there’s no floor even in the space. But we think we can move pretty quick. And so at least by Halloween, but hopefully by mid-October. We’ll let everybody know on social media and email. We wil have a grand opening of some sort. We will probably have a soft opening for a week or so, just make sure things are working. And then yes, we’ll definitely, even friends who don’t live here, but are in the area, in the Northern Virginia, D.C. area have been asking, “What’s the day for the party”?

Q. How big is the store?

Just over a thousand square feet. So that’s what I’ve got to contain my book buying — having done the trainings that I’ve done is helpful. I also did a 14-week course with a new professional bookseller school on just inventory management. So that was very helpful to help sort of go, Okay, I’ve got a thousand square feet, how many books can I fit in that space? What’s my budget for that? Our space actually has 12-foot ceilings, so I’m going to try to use some of the high space. I’m not going to add a ladder — the slide-y ladder —  at least not yet. We’ll have cards, gifts, puzzles — a lot of things will definitely have sort of that bookish, readerish theme, but we’ll see what else we bring in. We’re going to have some fun [with some] plushies, little knitted things. So they’ll be gifts for babies and kids and things like that that. I’d like to see what else I can bring in from the local maker community too. I want to see if people can ask for, if they’ve been looking for something, I’m happy to look and see what we can get. We will offer free gift wrapping for all the books. We’re working on what we can do for the other gift items, but at least for the books we’ll have free gift wrapping.

Q. What’s been the most surprising thing in trying to get this off the ground to you??

To me, it’s just how unique the book industry is. The way that you work with publishers, I think, is just different than the way you work with other wholesalers. You know, I’m going to obviously carry gifts as well, and greeting cards and things like that, and there’s a certain way that that pretty much is standard and works. But, yeah, publishers, they each work differently. There’s yeah it’s a whole different little world and so I’m really glad that I knew that you know before I actually went into this so yeah that was surprising.

Amber Taylor with her husband Keith and daughter Miranda, who both plan to make themselves useful at Taylor’s new McLean book store, Fonts Books & Gifts. 

Q. Do you remember the first book that you fell in love with?

Oh there’s actually a couple from when I was little. There was Harry the Dirty Dog. We will have that in the store. Yeah, Harry the Dirty Dog and Frog and Toad. That will be in the store as well. And then we have this little, I think it was called like Nutshell Library, there were these little tiny books. And I love those. And then I spent all of my babysitting money on Sweet Valley High books. I can’t remember not being a reader.

Q. Will you host book clubs?

 I want to see what the community is interested in doing and reading, If anyone’s interested in organizing book clubs. I would certainly do one myself, but if people are interested in in different genres and things, then I would I would hope somebody would be able to coordinate that. I’m hopeful that that we’ll have that and we’ll have that community of readers to be able to talk about what they like and don’t like.

Q. What about bringing in and hosting authors at the store?

Definitely. My background is actually in communications and PR. And so, that was what Eileen actually hired me to do at One More Page, was to do the events. I spent three years with publishers and authors coordinating events, both small ones that we can just host in the store and then larger events that we hosted with community partners. So I hope to be able to do the same thing. Probably, getting off the ground, getting up and open and getting through the holiday season, I won’t have a lot of events until next year, but I am talking with an author on Thursday about a potential event before the end of the year.

Q. Will you have a kids’ section in the store?

I was actually working with my Penguin Random House representative yesterday who is just solely focused on kids books. So I’m hoping to be able to offer a little bit of everything. I have a 10 year old, so she’s already been hired to help recommend books to those younger and her age. And hope to have a good young adult section as well that I know a lot of adult readers like to read. We’ll see if there’s an appetite for kid author events. We’ll have to just kind of see if that’s what the community wants as well.

Q. Will you try to get involved in the schools in some respect?

I was actually just thinking the other day that I need to get the reading lists. I’ve had some people reach out and say they wanted to buy the books that their kids need to read from a local bookstore.

Q. What do you think will be unique about the McLean books?

I’m kind of going on what I know just of folks that I know in the community and what they’re reading and what they’re interested in and we’ll grow and change our inventory as needed to what really the local community is looking for. We’ll have all the bestsellers, but but I’m also hoping to to bring in some unique things. That’s part of the lovely thing about small bookstores is there’s always something to discover, which was part of my little bird and my logo. It’s sort of a discovery— getting out and looking at things. We can special order pretty much anything as long as it’s still in print.

Q. Are there any other unique things you will be doing or selling in the store?

One of the other things I’m going to be carrying at the store are non-alcoholic spirits, which is new to some people, but it’s like the tequila without the alcohol. I’m going to bring in a guy who’s just amazing in that field and has been crafting all kinds of drinks. We’re hoping to do an event with him before the end of the year too.

Q. Have you met any of your neighbors over there at Chesterbrook Shopping Center?

I actually am banking with TD Bank right next door. I have popped in and I’ve had my nails done a few times at my other neighbor, [Lotus Nails] And then I’ve met the owner of Le Village Marche. When I was at One More Page, I actually coordinated a Small Business Saturday event with about 16 other small independent stores and restaurants around the bookstore and we did a really fun, passport on Small Business Saturday, so you could go around to different stores and enter to win prizes and things. I really love that community of small businesses and I’m looking forward to being part of it in McLean too.

Q. Is there some place you like to go out in McLean to eat or shop?

We definitely hit up the Balducci’s quite often. Miranda has done some camps at the Bach to Rock. [Music School] We love that place. We eat at Mylo’s Grill and we’re loving Call Your Mother [Lil’ Deli McLean].

Gayle Jo Carter is the editor of McLean Today.

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Talk: Sarah Farzayee

In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Sarah Farzayee, a member of the McLean Central Playground Team [MCPT]. MCPT is a grass-roots group of local parent volunteers with a common goal of seeing growth in the McLean community. They came together after discovering a need for outdoor play spaces for McLean children to gather and play.  They are working in partnership with Fairfax County Park Authority and Fairfax County Park Foundation to help with the planning and fundraising for a new McLean Central Park playground.

Q. Tell me story of the McLean Central Playground Team.

We’re all mothers, we’re all local mothers.  Cara Schantz began this  years-long initiative  to raise $400,000 after she moved here from Arlington. Arlington has amazing playgrounds and so that’s what she was used to, that’s what her kids were used to. They moved here and she was really surprised. She ended up driving back to Arlington almost every day to use the playgrounds and she said “We really deserve better. This shouldn’t be the case.” She started the process on seeing how the renovation works —  learning a little bit more about the process with the Fairfax County Park Authority. She learned that playgrounds are up for renovation every 20 years. This specific playground is 19 years old. It’s right around that time where they’re going to renovate it.

Q. What will the $400,000 add to the renovated playground that the Fairfax County Parks Authority’s revamp wouldn’t have included?

Fairfax County Parks Authority came up with a design and said, if you want anything additional, you have to raise the funds for it. If you don’t want the mulch, if you want it to be more inclusive or wheelchair accessible, or if you want a fence, or if you want to combine the two playgrounds together, then you will have to raise the funds for that. [Installed in 1998 and 2002, respectively, the playground and tot lot are on opposite ends of the park.] The original design was really just renovating it.

We combined our ideas to create a completely new, inclusive and safer playground. [A revised concept combines the playgrounds in a roughly 6,300-square-foot area where the tot lot is currently located.]

The playground will become more accessible and inclusive. The new equipment that we’re adding is going to be wheelchair accessible. We’re removing the mulch and we’re replacing it with rubber flooring so that the wheels of a wheelchair could easily access the equipment. We will add sensory toys as well as sensory equipment. It’s really going to be fully inclusive to all children, all capabilities. I think that’s something that is so important. I know we have Clemyjontri and we’ve discussed this. This has been a big, big question: “You already have Clemyjontri. Why do you want another one?” We don’t want another Clemyjontri. We just want a local, small community neighborhood park that all children can access. We shouldn’t have just one playground for children to access. The Clemyjontri Park attracts a lot of families from all over the area. Anytime we’re there, we bump into families who are coming from Maryland or from Fairfax or from all different cities and it’s really hard to connect and stay connected and schedule play dates and get our kids to hang out again because of that distance. With this playground, it’s local, it’s within the community, you’re going to run into kids from your kids’ school, families that live across the street from you. We need that.

Q. Why is it important to combine the two existing playgrounds into one?

My kids are are six years apart. I have a younger one and then I have a much older one. Whenever we visit the playground, my older one would have to be with the younger one and he will get bored after a minute. I’m sure there are so many other families who are in that same position. Combining the two playgrounds into one playground is so much more convenient for families and good for the kids because they get to use equipment that’s age appropriate. Whereas my son would just end up having to babysit my younger one or just sit at a bench. He usually bring his own ball and just kicks the ball around. That is a big benefit to it.

McLean Central Park Team unites at a Barbie screening playground fundraiser at the CMX CinéBistro Tysons Galleria, hosted by McLean Living Magazine. The MCPT [pictured above left to right]:  Lacey Obry, Sarah Farzayee, Jenny Gregory, Jessica Wu, Cara Schantz, Angie Golder — not pictured Rebecca Antzoulatos. 

Q. Where are you now in your fundraising and what is your deadline for raising the additional funds to make the renovated park inclusive?

Our deadline was in March of 2023 of this year. [The Park Authority] gave us a deadline of December 31st. We are at 75% right now which honestly, I don’t know if anyone thought we would have been able to do that because that’s quite an amount. We’re over that 50%. We’re still waiting for a few more larger donations, but with that it’ll help us push us forward. [The new central playground will cost approximately $675,000 — more than the park authority anticipated when it obtained $2.2 million in bond funding for the McLean Central redevelopment, which also calls for an amphitheater, pickleball courts and new walkways. With the county covering 41% of the playground costs, the moms have committed to funding the remaining $395,679, including all the new tot lot surfacing and equipment.]

Q. How did you get personally involved in the project?

I met Lacey [Lacey Obry, who created Instagram and Facebook profiles for the team as well as a website where people can donate directly to the Fairfax County Park Foundation] because our sons were in the same preschool. I read about this playground on Tyson’s Reporter [website]. I saw Lacey’s photo and I said, Oh my goodness, I’m so glad you’re doing something about this because this has been a playground that has bothered me since the day we moved here. My husband likes to joke that I have a personal vendetta against the playground. He’s like, Why does it bother you so much? I’m like, It’s just so poorly designed. I’m the one who’s always there with the kids.

Q. What is the timeline? When will be park be built?

They’re going to begin construction in January and by summer it should be completed.

Q. Has raising funds been challenging? Do you have a background in fundraising?

I just have experience with PTA fundraising. We came on board without any experience and we’re learning as we go. I think I have never been said “no” to this many times in my life. That’s the most challenging thing —  not feeling defeated. With our group, if one person has a personal connection with a business, then they’re the one who reaches out for fundraising efforts. For the most part, we do a little bit of everything. We go door to door, we do emails, we do phone calls, everything. We start with emails and follow up with phone call and if that doesn’t work we stop by.

Q. What have been your most successful fundraisers?

Our most successful event was at Divan restaurant. They were very, very generous. They donated a very large percentage to us of their sales — and it was for three days. That was very rare because we have not had that success with any of our other restaurant [fundraisers]. We had a big turnout for Kosmo Nail Bar. We recently did a fundraiser at ShipGarten that was a great one because we got to attract a new audience. Typically we would have family members or mothers, but over there the audience was so different and so vast. That was successful, not financially, but through that aspect, in a different way. Another successful fundraiser was an event hosted by McLean Living Magazine. It was the Barbie screening and that was that was a great great event where we we got to meet. McLean Living has a very large audience so they really helped get the word out. This was at the CMX Theater in [Tysons] Galleria.

Q. Are you offering up any sponsorship opportunities for donors?

Sponsorship opportunities begin at $5,000. We will have a wall and each leaf, donations of $5,000 small dogwood leaf; medium maple leaf $10,000; large leaf $15,000 —  and those leaves are local leaves in the playground. We incorporated some nature and educational aspect to it. At $20,000, our donors will receive a bench [only two left] — larger donors, $40,000, will receive a table [only four left]. Right now they have the wooded tables, but the new tables will be resin. We’ll be adding new benches, new tables as well.

Q. After this project is complete, will “The Team” continue your McLean advocacy and move onto another project?

We ended up becoming really close friends throughout all of this, that’s why I’m trying to get us to tackle something new. There’s a lot of things in McLean. I actually see this as a turning point for our community because when I moved here just recently, five years ago, I struggled with finding young families, young mothers, and even young children that my kids can connect with and have scheduled play dates with. Within the past five years, I’ve seen such an increase, so many more younger families, younger generations moving in, deciding to raise their kids here just like us. I feel like this is really a turning point for the community where you now have a group of young mothers, young children who say, “There’s some changes that we need to make”; “This is not working” or “This can be better.” This project in itself is really, really special in that sense because it’s a turning point for the community. It’s kind of welcoming, bringing in the newer generation, the change that comes with the new generation.

Gayle Jo Carter is the editor of McLean Today.

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Talk: Emma Blankenbaker & Savitha Sagar

In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Emma Blankenbaker [pictured above front], chair of McLean Matters, and Savitha Sagar, Vice President of Programs at the McLean High School PTSA [Parent Teacher Student Association].  McLean High School has approximately 280 students, nearly 12% of the student body, who are at, or below, the poverty level. McLean Matters — a student support program committee that is part of the PTSA (Parent-Teacher-Student Association) — aids those students in need with fundraising efforts to secure supplies and donations from the McLean High School community. 

Q. What are some specific projects McLean Matters does to help the underserved students?

Blankenbaker: At McLean High School, 12% percent of our [student] body is at or below the poverty level, They qualify for free lunches, support activities and computers. In order to support those students, we find out automatically through the counselors what these students need and are lacking. We often provide new backpacks and scientific calculators because those are pretty expensive. You have to have those for geometry and above. Around the holidays, we work with the community to collect gift cards for groceries and winter break needs, whether it’s clothing or other necessities. The counselors put all of those into envelopes and send those home with the student families to enjoy over the winter break. 

Sagar: One of the things we help with is that typically there’s a fee or tickets for major events. The counselors also have a list of students who are in need. It’s kept confidential for the student purposes so we don’t know who those students are. There is coordination that happens between the PTSA and the school to ensure that there’s an iron curtain to protect the students identity but at the same time the help still goes through from PTSA to the school so the items are distributed. So if they come in and say, ‘Two, three kids are planning to go to prom and need tickets, and we’d like to help them out’, then the PTSA help with funding to get what they need.  

Q. When did McLean Matters start?

Sagar: About four or five years ago, we didn’t necessarily have McLean Matters. It was more of if there’s a need, someone would come and ask at PTSA but it was a long process and we didn’t plan for it. It was more of an ad hoc. Both Emma and I came from Longfellow Middle School. Emma was actually leading an effort at [Longfellow] While I was treasurer there, she was the chair of Longfellow Loves, which is a similar program to McLean Matters, but it was catering to Longfellow students and middle school students. When we both came to McLean, because our children were going to high school, we were trying to figure out what programs we wanted to formalize. Emma and I knew that McLean Matters could be something that we can actually make a program, not just an ad hoc. Emma jumped in. She took the lead as a chair for that committee. We started coordinating, developing relationships with the school. Whether it’s the counselors who are in touch with the students, and some of the Student Services staff who also work with students, the psychologists, and the social workers. When we started the program, I was president elect of the McLean PTSA. And then as the president, I helped formalize the program. I’m now helping as the VP of programs and at this point, Emma has been running this single handedly coordinating with the PTSA and parents as chair of McLean Matters.

Q. How has the community helped with the McLean Matters program?

Sagar: We are very lucky to have a community that is very welcoming and actually wants to help. One example is that Emma had found out about a situation with one student who was a sophomore. She was working and supporting her mother, who was also working. This situation happened right here in McLean. We don’t think these things happen here. Emma had talked about this situation, not to tell a story, but to bring awareness to the community so people are aware that we have neighbors who might be living in this same situation as this sophomore. And that brought in such an immense and tremendous amount of support. People were calling and saying, ‘Hey, can we just write a check to this family?’ Because these are the things where you can’t write a check to the school. You can’t write a check to the PTSA. But you can actually help the families in need or the students in need. So I’d say we’re acting more as catalysts. We’re a nonprofit organization. The school has its educational organization. So we can’t necessarily write checks ourselves, but we can actually build awareness and collect information. And we collect gift cards that can be passed on to the school which then goes to the families.

Blankenbaker: All of the proceedings go directly to the families. We don’t collect anything, it’s all given to the families and the people in need.

Above left: Savitha Sager, Vice President of Programs at the McLean High School PTSA and above right Ellen Reilly, McLean High School principal.

Q. What are the challenges McLean Matters faces?

Blankenbaker: I haven’t faced any major challenges other than when we go to an organization and ask for donations for school supplies. Occasionally, they will decline. But there are so many other places we can contact that it doesn’t really inhibit what we’re able to bring in. And then as far as the winter gift card drive, I would say it’s just the opposite. It’s just overwhelming how generous the community is.

Q. Share with us your favorite part of working with McLean Matters?

Blankenbaker: I would have to say it’s the people that I get to work with in the PTSA. The best part for me is working with the administrators at school and I get to work with the counselors as well. I meet all kinds of neat people that are willing to help. It’s just so heartwarming when I put out a message through the PTSA newsletter. People all the time are writing to me directly saying if you need any help collecting clothing or gift cards, let me know. There’s always someone willing to help.

Q. Are there future projects you’d like to see get off the ground with McLean Matters? 

Sagar: Yes actually. As we were looking at the students in need, one of the things we were looking at was scholarships figuring out how we go about doing this. So one thing that we’ve been discussing was how do we make these scholarships be in place, not just for one year, but continue on year over year. So this year, we are moving forward with the scholarship funds for seniors and we wanted to not just do it for seniors, but actually focusing primarily on seniors who actually have the need. So that way the seniors who actually are in accepted and enrolled in a four year accredited college, get the scholarship and it’s something that the school actually designs in terms of the qualification and things of that nature, because they are much more aware of the students, not just the need but also their qualification if they meet the criteria and everything. So that’s something I want to say we’ve been successful in actually establishing it this [past] year. And that way, it moves into the budget next year and so on and so forth. So that’s something that has come out of McLean Matters. I’d say it’s a positive thing.

Q. When you are not busy being the Chair of McLean Matters, what do you do?

Blankenbaker: I have a therapy dog and we do therapy dog visits at McLean High School during the lunch periods. I love hanging out with my family and I love to cook everything.

Q. Do you have a favorite restaurant in McLean?

Blankenbaker: I would have to say Aracosia. I love the appetizers, especially the dumplings, the potato leek dumplings.

Sagar: The potato leeks are my favorite as well from Aracosia.

Dania Reza is the social media content curator for McLean Today. She is a senior at McLean High School and is the design editor-in-chief of her award-winning school news magazine, The Highlander. 

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Talk: Gracie de Luca

In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Gracie de Luca, the manager and an instructor at Pure Barre McLean. The 50 minute group class workouts —  offered in the studio and virtually — focus on low-impact, small movements that promise to strengthen and tone your entire body.

Q. What is Pure Barre? 

Pure Barre is a form of exercise that revolves around the bar. We focus on low impact workouts that create high impact results. We now offer 5 class formats — Classic, Empower, Reform, Align  and Define, which came out a couple weeks ago.

Q. How many members do you have? How many staff?

Right now we have 125 members. It took a pretty big hit after Covid so we’re still in the process of rebuilding and getting back our members. We have nine staff members right now. We have six teachers, two desk associates, and including me, it’s nine.

Pure Barre McLean: Shop and shake! In addition to work outs, the studio has a retail area selling fitness inspired clothing and accessories.
Pure Barre’s sell: A total body workout, Pure Barre lifts your seat, tones your thighs, abs, and arms!

Q. Do you need fitness experience to start coming to Pure Barre?

I don’t think so. The barre classes are very easy to follow — even for your first class — because the teachers are telling you what you’re doing and they demo parts of the form. Even if you’ve never been before, you’ll catch on pretty quickly.

Q. What is your fitness background?

 I became interested in fitness after being a manager at Lifetime Fitness in Fairfax. My current workout routine revolves around being a Pure barre instructor. I have to learn new choreography for every single class I teach, I teach evening classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I practice a lot at home so I consider that a great workout. I am [also] currently getting my masters in social work at VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] online and I will be graduating in 2024.

Q. What is your favorite part of the job?

Definitely working with the staff, I love all my girls that work with me. They’re all super fun to be around and super helpful. It’s nice to be able to make them happy as a manager. That’s honestly the best part of it.

Q. What is the most challenging part of your job?

Probably the marketing and publicity aspect. I run the social media aspect. There are always going to be hard decisions to make as a manager and a lot of the time you have to do what makes the most sense for the studio.

Q. What is your goal as manager?

My personal goal is to get us to the place we were before COVID, or a better place in terms of numbers and class format and time availability. Just so we can make the members we have here happy and also attract new ones with a full class schedule. During COVID, the studio closed down for a period of time and then they were back to doing social distancing classes. Even though [the studio] was back open, people were still scared to come which is understandable. A lot of people canceled their memberships. After that, all of our studios, at least all of our sister studios, really took a hit in terms of membership counts. So we are just trying to rebuild from what happened.

Q. Do you have a favorite restaurant to go to in McLean?

Chesapeake Bagel Bakery. That place is so good for bagels and breakfast sandwiches. They’re bacon, egg and cheese sandwich is so good. I like to get their plain bagels with cream cheese as well. Honestly, everything is really good.

Dania Reza is the social media content curator for McLean Today. She is a junior at McLean High school and is an assistant design editor-in-chief of her award-winning school news magazine, The Highlander. 

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Talk: Gholam “Tony” Kowkabi

In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Gholam “Tony” Kowkabi, owner, Divan restaurant. Divan is the first Persian eatery opened by the restaurateur, a native of Tehran known for D.C. restaurants including Ristorante Piccolo and Catch 15.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your background in the restaurant business prior to opening Divan in McLean.

 I have been in the food hospitality industry for almost forty years. During college, I worked in a restaurant, different positions. I really liked the restaurant environment that you meet people, you make people happy. It was something that I wanted to do —  my passion. After graduation, I started saving money. I opened my first restaurant in 1986 — Ristorante Piccolo in Georgetown and that restaurant still is open. Prior to that, for about five or six years, I was working at different restaurants in D.C., in Maryland. From 1986 to about a year and a half ago, when I opened Divan, I probably opened another ten restaurants. I was busy, very busy.

Q. You are strictly on the business side, you are not cooking?

During this forty years, I started developing an interest for cooking. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen and I got involved. After all these years, I turned out to be a pretty good cook.

Q. Being from Iran, was it always your dream to open a restaurant with Persian cuisine?

Not necessarily. My dream was what I was doing. My passion was mostly for Mediterranean and Italian, which I did. One of my flagship restaurants were Tuscana West, Downtown D.C., where I was one of the first tablecloth restaurants in that area which was on 13th and 14th street. Not too far away from the White House. I was there for 25 years. This restaurant was a huge restaurant —  open kitchen, private rooms. I had a passion but all this time everybody knew that I wasn’t Italian. People kept asking me, “Why don’t you just open up a Persian restaurant?” To be honest with you, because of the political of the world, what’s going on, I never thought that opening up a Persian restaurant would be a very lucrative business. But I have been watching a lot of different types of ethnic food become so popular in the last eight to ten years because I’m a foodie guy and I see it. That has a lot to do with people getting educated about different foods from different parts of the world. That’s why I became more interested. Looking at my background, I’ve always opened up real casual places. If I wanted to do this, I wanted to do it with style. About three years ago, this idea came to my head that, Yeah, why not do the Persian restaurant?

Q. What led you to choose McLean for your first Persian restaurant?

It took me almost two, three years to come up with a plan, the idea, the menu planning, the kind of a design that I want. All my restaurants, 90% in D.C. — I’m a D.C. guy but because there are lots of Iranians or Persians in Virginia and because I live in Vienna, I figured, Tysons Corner is a great destination because it has a Metro. It’s become a very vibrant part of the outside of D.C .area. I picked the Capital One building first. Honestly, it was a good location, but it turned out to be really expensive. I decided not to do it. That’s why my agent took me to McLean.

Q. Is it a family business — does your wife come into the restaurant to help as well?

She does sometimes when we get busy, but my wife loves gardening. We have about 3,000 flowers around the house, in the yard. She plants all these flowers around all the gates and everywhere else. She is obsessed with the flowers and gardening. She loves that, all day long.

Q. Is there a story behind the name, Divan?

 There were a whole bunch of names that came to mind. Why did I choose Divan? Divan in Persian has several different meanings. One of the meaning of it is like “grand, luxury.” Another meaning of it, which I was really enthusiastic about this whole name —  there’s a poet called Hafiz and he’s just a fantastic poet and one of the parts of his book because he has written a lot of books and they’re all being translated into English and one of his book, the part of his collection of his poem is called Divan. Now in that collection of his book he just says so many beautiful things about life and things of that nature which I really relate to that. I love it. I can quote a few of the things that he says in that book. For instance he says “We are people who need to love because love is the source of life. Love is simply creation of greatest joy.” Another thing is just “laugh, because that’s the purest sound.” It just goes on, and it just… I wanted to have a meaningful name, because in the past, whatever name that I’ve chosen for my restaurant, I wanted it to be so trendy. It did have a little bit of meaning, but more that grabbing people’s attention. But this was truly a meaningful for me.

Q. Is the food, the recipes, things you ate with your family growing up in Iran?

We lived in Tehran — I left Iran 1977 — I was 17, I’m 63 now — which was a very cosmopolitan city just like New York. You live in an apartment; every neighborhood has its own restaurants. I always loved the food, but I knew that the food is complicated, especially if you want to present the food in a restaurant, you have to do it with a little style and finesse. Otherwise, what’s the point of going out right? It was a combination of using all my memories and my experience, put it together. I think that’s what makes any restaurant unique because at the end of the day, you want people to come and appreciate it. It has to be a little bit extraordinary, keeping the original taste and all the ingredients. Basically, that’s what I did. Because I haven’t really been cooking Persian food, I started looking for a chef. I started looking in Southern California, L.A., there’s just incredible Persian community where they have more restaurants. I started contacting some of my friends and saying that I’m looking for someone who’s very passionate and at the same time creative. To make the story short, after searching, I came up with one person. He came and we talked. Then I realized that he can’t really move here but he can help me, to start working on it developing a menu, recipes and all that. That’s how we got started.

Q. How did you decide on the dishes you ended up with?

Just like any country, from different parts of Iran, there’s different types of food. This chef that came here, he was from North and interesting is that the way they approach the food and some of the spices. They like sour things. They have a lot of fresh herbs and fresh food. They have a lot of marination. Persian food, not too many people know about it. They only think, “Oh, this is kebab,” which is not true. This is one thing I discovered too because I’ve been here for 44 years and I haven’t really traveled or remembered everything about Iran, but once I started digging in about the cuisine, I found out, Oh my God, there’s just so much to offer.

Q. You’ve also got some speciality drinks on your menu?

We encourage people with a great selection of wine and craft cocktails, but I noticed that a lot of people, they don’t want to drink, and how do you make them happy? So my daughter, who’s sort of a bar manager for now, she came up with this mocktail, which is incredible. It’s like 10 or 12 different things that uses different ingredients, all fresh fruits, they’re all mixed together. It’s just delicious. It’s been really great success. For me personally and for people who love it.

Q. How is the business doing?

It’s just absolutely incredible and luckily, because we are really not a type of foot traffic place. My goal was, I’m familiar with marketing too, because I used to market myself really well in D.C. contacted social media. We wanted to have people coming from the DMV — meaning Maryland, Virginia, D.C. Once we accomplish that, then we can go further. We succeeded. Honestly, usually a successful restaurant that I’ve done in the past, it takes about a year, year and a half, for you to reach your goal and meet some of your numbers. But here we were able to do it in six months. I was just blown away.

Q. Besides good food, what is the secret to a successful restaurant?

We have a strong management on the floor but we would like to know people. That’s one of the things that we teach [our employees]. They talk to the guests, we find out where they’re from and we meet a lot of people from McLean. It just makes me very happy that I am part of the neighborhood and I can provide happiness for them — good food, good time. We are very very grateful and thankful to the McLean residents because honestly they just come.

Q. Have you eaten in any other McLean restaurants?

J Gilberts because I love steak. My wife and I, we go to the bagel place, Chesapeake; CAVA; we’ve been to the Turkish restaurant several times, Kazan; McLean Family Restaurant.  

Q. Sounds like you’re a McLean convert?

We were chosen the top ten in Virginia restaurants. It’s a great feeling. I’m a businessman. As much as I think about money, I don’t really think about money. I focus on doing the right things because when the right things happen, money will come. If we don’t do it right, money will never come. I was really focusing on service because to me there are three elements that makes any restaurant successful: ambience, good service, and good food. You know, ambience, obviously I captured that in this beautiful ambience. But good food and good service, it takes effort. One of the issues that we have —  luckily we don’t have it anymore, was hiring the right people. After COVID, I’m sure you heard this, it was very difficult to hire qualified people. We had to spend a lot of time here. I had to bring some staff from other restaurants. I had to hire my kids. I have three beautiful kids. They helped me. it was a team effort.

Gayle Jo Carter is the editor of McLean Today.

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Talk: Steve Mournighan

Interview by Sam Marks — 

In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Steve Mournighan, the newly elected president of Share of McLean. Share of McLean is a volunteer-led,  non-profit organization that runs a series of programs to meet the emergency needs of McLean’s residents and those in nearby areas of Northern Virginia. Our neighbors in need are economically distressed families and individuals, seniors living on limited pensions (often facing medical issues), recent immigrants, victims of spousal abuse, and formerly homeless persons.   If you are looking to volunteer in your community, Mournighan encourages everyone to join in the effort whether by helping in the food room, delivering furniture, or donating to Share of McLean.

Q. Share of McLean began with various faith communities working together — tell us about that and how they integrate with each other?

Share was founded in 1969 by about 10 churches and the Jewish synagogue, Temple Rodef Shalom, who were the original founders. The faith communities work well together to support us and they have been very generous, not only with financial support, but in providing us with volunteers. For instance, the Latter Day Saints church on Great Falls Street provides us with young men and women who speak Spanish. At the food room, that is invaluable. Our food rooms are open on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the McLean Baptist Church, which provides us with a lot of space for our food room and our clothing room. The Board and the volunteers all come together from all these different faith communities and work well together. 

Q. Do you have to be a member of a faith community to volunteer for Share?

You don’t have to be a member of one of those faith communities. Our volunteers come in from all over McLean whether a part of a faith community or not.

Q. Who are the neighbors outside McLean that Share also serves?

There are four zip codes that we focus on. There’s McLean, Great Falls, Pimmit Hills, and the other side of Route 7 around George C. Marshall High School. The county government has divided the county into areas of emphasis. So Share of McLean has been dedicated to those zip codes by the county government. There are organizations in Vienna and Reston much like us that have been designated those areas.

Q. How do you receive support from the McLean community?

Two parts to that. The first is the people of McLean have been very generous over the years with giving individual donations. Some of the local community groups, like the Rotary, the Women’s Club, and the Knights of the Round Table have all been very generous over the years. 

I want to particularly give the McLean community kudos for their support during the pandemic. We were facing a lot of serious issues helping people. The McLean community and our Great Falls neighbors really stepped up and they have continued to step up. 

Second part: We’re always amazed at how we are not known to the McLean community. There are a lot of people in McLean and Great Falls who have never heard of us. We’ve been around this 1969 and we continue to inform our neighbors that Share exists and that we do help our needy neighbors.

Q. Is there a publicity campaign that you all engage in get the organization on people’s radar?

The answer is yes! We have secured two younger volunteers who are proficient at social media and they are starting to really go out and make our name known in the community. We do have a website and we continue to get people coming to that website [interested in] volunteering, so that’s very pleasing to us because we always need volunteers. There are no paid people at Share. Everybody in the organization, including myself, is a volunteer. The website has been successful to some extent but we are taking more positive steps in more areas of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to try to get our name out there.

Q. How many people volunteer on a regular-basis?

I’d say around 250 people. All are doing various things. They’re in the food room at the McLean Baptist Church helping stock shelves, sorting clothes, delivering donated furniture to people in McLean and Great Falls. We’ve got some high school kids who are refurbishing computers. We have a lot of people working in about five or six different programs. [There are] program chairs who supervise, but it’s a collaboration of people who are working in the various programs under some level of managing volunteers. For instance, the food room and the clothing room is run by Nicki Watts, a retired Air Force Officer, and she does a great job at organizing both rooms like clockwork.

Q. Who are the suppliers that you’re in contact with? Are they also a local to McLean as well?

It varies program by program. In the clothing room, people just donate clothes they don’t use anymore. We get food donations from the local community. People just drop off food. Also, we ask local stores, Giant, Walmart, and Lidl to provide us food. Food drives are run by us, the postal service out of McLean Post Office, and the Boy Scouts, which brings in a tremendous amount of food. We’re also partnering with DC Central Kitchen to help us get food. We’ll stand outside food stores and we’ll hand out a list of things we need in particular. Say we have a shortage of diapers or toothpaste, we’ll stand outside of stores and say to people going in “Hey, if you want to donate, Share needs these items and we’ll be right here with this cart”. You’ll be amazed at how effective it is. People will come out and put items in the truck. I want to emphasize the support we’ve gotten from Giant, from Walmart, and from Lidl. They have really helped out. 

I had a cup of tea at Greenberry’s with Nicki who said the food supply is pretty steady except in the summer when people go on vacation and schools are closed. But we make it and get through with our support from volunteers. 

Now as far as the furniture program is concerned, it’s basically folks from McLean and Great Falls folks donating. If you’re buying a new couch, call us up and we’ll come pick up the old couch Saturday morning. The next Saturday morning, it’s going to be delivered to somebody who needs a couch. The donations are from individuals and organizations. I know the Rotary club provides support.

Q. What is the best example you’ve seen that represents what Share of McLean does?

The furniture program is where you physically see the importance of the work being done. You pick up a couch from a billion dollar house and deliver that furniture to an area with no billion dollar houses. You really get to see the housing needs people have through furniture donations. I can speak from experience. I dropped off a couch once at an apartment with nothing in it. No bed, no chairs, and the lady looks at me and she says “I have nothing”. So I told her to just go to the back of the truck and pick out what she needed. We gave her a bed, tables, and anything else that would help. 

Another one, where we really see the need is the family assistance program where we are paying people’s rent, paying people’s utility bills. They’ve got a notice from Dominion saying Fairfax Water is going to cut off their water supply. We help pay the bill once or twice a year.  It works very well with the Fairfax County government as a good collaboration effort. Those are the programs where you really get to see people’s needs.


Q. How have you personally been involved in the development of the Share of McLean?

I’ve been with Share for 30 years. I started off driving the truck for the furniture program one Saturday a month. I’ve been with Share for a long time. Why do I do it? Because somebody has to help.

When I was starting, my kids were in high school and I wasn’t coaching soccer anymore, so I was looking for something to do. Share was a local organization. It’s focused out of the McLean Baptist Church, so it was very easy to enter and get involved in it. A lot of hauling furniture, but I had a good time. About 18 years ago, I got elected as the Recording Secretary. I took that job as I continued to volunteer with the furniture program. I started volunteering to stock shelves, run food drives. I was having a good time. I was helping people out and that was my motivation.

Q. Do you have any lasting message for the McLean community? 

I’ve lived in McLean for 48 years and it’s a great place to live. A lot of nice people live here. If I were going to deliver a message, I’d ask my neighbors to remember that there is an underside to McLean. There are a lot of people in Great Falls and Pimmit Hill who need help. I’d ask my fellow citizens of McLean and Great Falls to keep that in mind. I also want to say thank you to all of those people, who over the years, have been the volunteers and sent donations to Share.

 Sam Marks is a rising third-year student at the University of Edinburgh. He’s a D.C. resident, passionate about American political history, and has dual citizenship with the United Kingdom. Journalism has been a passion of his for many years and he’s excited to meet the friendly faces of McLean while writing for McLean Today. Outside of his academic pursuits, Sam is a keen swing dancer and DJs on a local radio station in Scotland. 

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Talk: Angela Phelps

In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Angela Phelps, owner and founder, Le Village Marché & Boutique, which recently opened in McLean’s Chesterbrook Shopping Center. The  French-inspired home décor and gift store is already known to locals for their original store located in Arlington’s Village at Shirlington since March 2007. Whether you need a gift, something for yourself, or just an escape from the stresses of life outside their doors, Phelps encourages you to come to Le Village Marché & Boutique and feel as if you’re strolling through a Parisian flea market.

Q.  Why did you choose McLean for the new store?

The same developers that redid the Shirlington, property 16, 17 years ago, are redeveloping this Chesterbrook property. When the leasing tenant coordinator reached out to me, he said, “You know, we’ve got this great property in McLean, we’re redoing it. It’s been sort of a quiet spot for a long time and there’s a big need, and we would love a gift shop.” Basically as soon as he said that J. McLaughlin was going in, I thought, Ding, ding, ding, that is my customer. I said, Huh, this wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Q. Walk me back to the original shop opening —  what were you doing before selling these beautiful things?

Before selling beautiful, smelly candles? Well actually, I had been in radio and I did a lot of media and communications. My last job was in publishing. I was having an early midlife crisis trying to think about what I’d like to be doing and what I’d like my life to look like. I had a lot of really good jobs but I just always felt like, they were just not... it was like square peg, round hole. I just always felt like I was really, really good at something, I just didn’t know what it was. I feel like when you start asking the questions, the universe sends you the answers. Or at least sends you in the right direction.

Q. Why a French gift store, what’s the inspiration?

I love the idea of simplifying and not having to commute downtown every day and having a little shop in a little neighborhood. I had gone to Paris with my mom in 2000 and I thought, You know the French, they know how to live. There’s something here that’s magical. We can take a little bit away from that. They were redeveloping Shirlington. I contacted the leasing guy and the rest is history. Sixteen years ago, I opened a small little shop there and then I expanded to another, larger location in Shirlington. Then I had opened a a small, second location at Cathedral Commons up on Wisconsin Avenue in 2015 when they were redeveloping that property. It was a five-year lease and it ended in 2020. I thought, “Yeah [Covid arrived] this is good time. How about I just wrap this up and move and just focus on the Shirlington store.” Thankfully I was able to and we came back busier than we’ve ever been after the pandemic.

Q. What makes it an item that says Le Village Marché & Boutique?

I’m very much inspired by the French markets in Paris, in the South of France. I love that you can stumble upon these lovely little markets and you’re going to obviously find things like the French soaps and the French linens and tea towels and tea knives, glassware. I love the idea of mixing in a little bit of old. So you’ll stumble upon this gorgeous china or old piece of furniture, old typewriter. I’ve always loved to be able to mix that in. I feel like when you come into a new space like we’ve just done , it’s a brand new space — white walls, everything is so new —  adding a little bit of some older elements gives the place a little bit of soul. I moved into the space and once I got the furniture, I thought, You know what, I think I need to go antiquing. So I went antiquing and found some really cool things.

Q. Have you found the McLean customers different than the Shirlington customers?

I was wondering the same thing. I’m still trying to figure it out but actually, I’m finding they’re very similar, which is good, because they are responding to the products and the atmosphere that we’ve created here, just like they have in Shirlington. You come into our store and there’s so many good things to smell between the soaps and the candles and then we’re playing the French music. It’s very much a shopping experience when you come in. Of course we want people — if they need a last minute hostess gift to run in and get something — but it really is a place where you can just come and just sort of get lost and just enjoy the atmosphere. We have a lot of young moms [stopping in] who do the [school] pick up and drop off here at the Chesterbrook. They’ve been popping in over the last week as their kids are winding down the school year. Then we have a lot of older clientele which is exactly what we have in Shirlington, getting together for lunch and going shopping and looking for hostess gifts. I’m also asking What sort of things are you [shoppers] looking for? I’ve heard some great feedback from customers on more French linens, stuff like that.

Q. Have you stepped out and gotten anything to eat in McLean?

Well, Mylo’s is two doors down, and I’ve been visiting them quite a bit. The food is so good and they have some really good Greek wine. That’s been fun. South Block, of course, and Call Your Mother [Bagels].

“My dad was in the army and we lived overseas quite a bit when I was a child. One of the first places I remember living was in Morocco. It was kindergarten, but I remember we took French classes, so it must have stuck with me since then,” says Angela Phelps about the start of her lifelong all things France obsession.

Q. Will you have a grand opening of sorts?

We’re trying to coordinate with J. McLaughlin. We’re trying to time it. We’ll probably end up doing it in maybe either late June or early July. We’ll send out something on our email list and post it on our social media.

Q. What’s your favorite thing that you think is unique in the store?

Well, I did find some vintage glassware —  gorgeous old glasses. I love those kind of things. I love having the old stuff [that] I think is unique. I did bring back a line, a French line of soaps and some little little eau de toilettes of Roger & Gallet. It’s a very old line. They’ve done some repackaging and it has a sort of a fresh new look. I have never carried that in Shirlington and I said, Let me try it. It’s actually beautiful and the store smells so good. It’s a nice line that’s had a little bit of a refresh. It’s done well here and I just reordered it and I just ordered it for Shirlington. I love the scent myself.

Q. What are your staffing needs?

I have hired a couple people. They actually reached out to me before I even knew it, or before we even mentioned it. I have some girlfriends and they are moms, and so they told their mom friends. They had college girls coming home for the summer. I’ll probably be looking to hire a couple more part-time folks, especially when these girls leave to go back to college. I would rather have some permanent sales associates.

Q. What’s the most fun part of having this early midlife crisis and then reinventing yourself, basically?

When I first had thoughts of doing this, I sought some advice from different people when I was trying to formulate the business. At least two different people, from a lawyer to someone else said, “Traditionally, retail has not done very well in Shirlington” and “You’re either the smartest person I know or the dumbest.” I thought, Well, you have to get to the point where you’re willing to risk everything to follow your dream and if it doesn’t work, you have to be able to be okay with what the worst case scenario is… Or, it could be the best decision you ever made. That’s the thing I decided. I said, You know what? If this works, it’s going to be the best decision I ever made. I’m so glad I did because it really has been. It is so personally fulfilling. Not only being able to create something beautiful and be able to be my own boss and be able to make my own decisions about your own destiny of your own life. I love that. But then also to create something so beautiful that makes people so happy when they come in. Our mission is to curate beauty and spread kindness. I love that putting more good out into the world is important. The more we can do that, the better. So not only are we meeting people’s needs, if they come in and get gifts, but also they can come in for a shopping experience, they can pick up something for themselves. Then also just to be a part of the community and be able to donate to good causes. Once the school years resume, we can do some fundraising for the local schools. Anything that we can do to sort of put more good out in the world is a good thing.

 “I want to make sure we try to get as much from France as possible,” says Phelps about the merchandise sold in her new Chesterbrook Shopping Center store, Le Village Marché & Boutique.

Gayle Jo Carter is the editor of McLean Today.

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