Why Crozet: Generous Neighbors Lift Spirits During Holidays

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Roger Hodskins trains loop around a whimsical Christmas Village. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Why Crozet,” now beginning its third year, is a monthly feature that tells a hopeful story about Crozet by seeking the positive aspects of life in an area undergoing unprecedented growth and change. We especially like to notice the people and events that bring Crozet residents from very different backgrounds together in a way that uplifts everyone and builds a sense of community. People came from all over Crozet and beyond to visit a beautiful and whimsical railway built simply to give joy during the holiday season. Others assisted a Western Albemarle student in raising enough money for a substantial donation to charity.

On the Right Track

During the last, bitterly cold days of the year, Roger Hodskins created a joyful panorama to brighten the gloomy, early dusk. He’s the architect, city planner, and transportation director for an elaborate village served by a number of trains that roll along an elevated track covering his side yard and extending into Old Trail’s Addle Hill Park. 

It was an ambitious project, requiring a great deal of advance planning and a little help from some talented friends. Hodskins is a skilled woodworker and one of the founders of a young Crozet woodworking group. “Once I drew up my plans, they were glad to pitch in,” he said. 

His fascination with trains goes back to his childhood, a time when many children laid down tracks, linked engines, coal cars and cabooses, and constructed shops, trees and ice-skating rinks as part of a holiday display.

He credits his wife, Joan, for the original idea for a neighborhood destination, as well as the rebirth of his interest in miniature railroads. As work and family responsibilities grew, he had abandoned his youthful hobby until she presented him with the beginnings of a G-scale rail line, the largest model trains available commercially. Over the years, Hodskins worked on a garden railway at their New England home, complete with landscaping and structures. 

Hodskins retired from his career with Amazon Web Services, and they moved to Crozet to be closer their children (UVa graduates) in northern Virginia. “Of course, we couldn’t bring the whole garden railroad, but I could pack up the trains and tracks,” he said. After a few years, he became interested in doing something that would provide a spirit of community as well as some lighthearted Christmas fun for people in the town he’d come to love.

For the week before and the week after Christmas, people came by the cheerful scene, and stopped to talk to Hodskins as well as each other. “The response was amazing,” Hodskins said. He always remained by his railroad to answer questions and talk about specific features. People brought him cookies and wine, children went home and drew pictures of the operation, and many offered to make donations to the cost. “Of course, I didn’t accept them,” he said, but it gave him an idea. “What if I were to do this in support of a charity?” he asked. If he can work it out, that will be his goal next year.

Crowds grew every night the trains ran, and Hodskins kept them running except for the couple of nights of icy rain and single-digit temperatures before Christmas. Besides expressing their delight at seeing the Christmas village and meeting neighbors they’d never known, the railway lovers had some great ideas, Hodskins said. “Some offered to help, and if this gets any bigger next year, I’ll need it.” Others suggested he add some miniature Crozet landmarks: Crozet Pizza, Crozet Hardware, Parkway Pharmacy. “I love that idea,” Hodskins said. He’d already incorporated one Old Trail landmark––the clock tower––into the “tiny library” he’d built near his home. 

Hodskins said he was very pleased at the popularity of his Christmas gift to the community. “It’s not for the recognition, but to bring people together after a few very stressful years,” he said. “We love being here in Crozet.”

It’s a Wrap

Meanwhile, up the hill at Restoration, another volunteer project was underway the last four weekdays before Christmas. Caroline Just, her mother, and two of her closest friends wrapped presents for Crozet Santas who found themselves running out of time, or who just weren’t very good at the patience and dexterity it takes to wrap a number of presents in a way that disguises what’s inside. In fact, it was her father’s dislike of that yearly chore that gave her the idea for her fund-raising venture. “He used to take his presents to the Salvation Army to wrap,” Caroline said, “but they don’t do it anymore.” 

Caroline always enjoyed working for charity, and credits her mother, a social worker, with exposing her to the needs of those who struggle with poverty, health and hunger. She had been part of several projects designed to help Loaves and Fishes, a Charlottesville non-profit that supplies groceries free of charge to residents of Charlottesville and surroundings counties. She chose that charity as the beneficiary of her long days of cutting, wrapping and taping. Restoration gave her a large table in a back room to serve as a base, and she’d already stocked up on wrapping paper and ribbon at last year’s clearance sales. She recruited two friends, Hollin Smith and Ella Kuzjak, to help her, and they began their four-day wrapping marathon the Tuesday before Christmas. There was no charge for the service, just a request for a donation of any amount.

Caroline Just, Hollin Smith and Ella Kuzjak wrapped for days to benefit Loaves and Fishes. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Each day, the number of customers grew and, shortly after Christmas, Caroline was able to send $750 to Loaves and Fishes. Despite the weather, customers flooded in on Friday, the last day of wrapping. Donations were generous, she said, generally from $25 to $50, but one particularly charitable patron donated $200. 

Caroline is a junior at Western Albemarle, where she is on the varsity field hockey team, the leader of two school clubs, and a class officer. She works part time as a food runner at Blue Mountain Brewery. 

There were some challenges: a big crowd on the last day, presents like lazy Susans and candles that required some creative wrapping, and a lack of enough manpower at times. But she’s planning to do it again next year, perhaps starting a little earlier, she said. “It was really fun.” 

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