CASA GRANDE — Andy and Jessica Salazar and a group of 10 friends have provided Pinal County families in need with Christmas toys, school supplies and food for 14 years.
As the group gears up for its annual Christmas toy drive at the Airport Tavern on Dec. 8, they’re thinking about who will continue the tradition.
“I had a bit of a health scare a few weeks ago and it got me to thinking about who will take over when we’re gone,” Andy said.
He realized that he’s already trained his replacements — his kids.
The annual event consists of collecting donations of new unwrapped toys for newborns to teens from businesses, local organizations and residents from July through December, with a major toy drive at the Airport Tavern the first weekend of December.
The toys are sorted into bins by type and age and stored in two 20-foot-long trailers until a few days before Christmas, when they are given to kids and families in need at the group’s annual holiday event in front of Precise Motor Services on Cottonwood Lane. The distribution event includes a visit and photos with Santa, raffles for bicycles for the kids and free food for the kids. This year’s distribution event is slated for Dec. 21.
“Our kids, all of our kids,” Jessica said, waving at the other members of the toy drive sitting around a table, “have been involved since we started this. Our daughter was one year old when we started, now she’s 15.”
“I got involved because my dad was involved and it seemed like the right kind of thing to do,” said friend Augie Melecio. He started volunteering at the toy drive with his dad, Junbug Melecio, when he was in his teens. The two have been involved with the toy drive and gift giving since the very beginning.
Salazar said he and his wife started the toy drive 14 years ago when they stuffed a handful of extra gift bags with small things, candy, crayons, coloring books, etc., and drove around Pinal County handing them out to families they knew were in need and had kids. That effort morphed into providing families with food, clothing, school supplies and helping with home repairs, and more and more families across Pinal County were added to the list.
When their volunteer efforts grew beyond their means, the Salazars started recruiting the friends they had grown up with in Casa Grande.
“We all grew up in situations where we didn’t have enough,” Andy said, referring to others in the group.
He reached out to Junbug Melecio through a car club they were both members of, and Rolando and Michelle Caudillo, Chuey Munoz and Ray Bustos are all longtime friends.
“We went to school together as kids,” Rolando Caudillo said. “I was a bit of a knucklehead when I was younger. I’d like to leave a positive impact on the community. I like watching how the community comes together and watching it (the toy drive and other volunteer efforts) build.”
Jesse Molina, from Precise Motor Vehicle Services, is the newest addition to the group. The Molinas started helping out three years ago when the group needed a new place to distribute the toys from. He offered the parking lot in front of his office on Cottonwood Lane and hasn’t looked back.
“It’s seeing the look on all those kids’ faces when they hear that Santa has arrived,” he said. “They just go wild.”
Having their kids involved with the toy drive and all of their other volunteer work has always been a part of the plan, Jessica said.
“We’ve been blessed to be able to give our kids more than what we had,” she said.
And they didn’t want their kids to take that blessing for granted, she said.
Their kids help with every aspect of the toy drive, Jessica said. They help collect and sort the toys before the event and pass out tickets and hot dogs the day of the gift-giving event.
It’s also their kids who are responsible, on the day of the event, for searching the two 20-foot trailers crammed with toys of every shape and kind for the perfect gift for Santa to hand to a child in need.
“They know exactly what toy to pick out, because they remember what they liked to play with at that age,” she said. “They love it.”
Andy and Jessica Salazar are hoping that love of helping out those in need will stay with their kids and encourage them to keep the event going long after the two of them are no longer able to help.
CASA GRANDE -- Every corner of June Graber’s Casa Grande home, except the interior of the closets, is a celebration of Christmas.
With dozens of Christmas trees, thousands of ornaments, yards of garland and lights, several Nativity scenes and Christmas villages and a whole room dedicated to Santa, every year Graber transforms the interior of her home into 1,500 square feet of Christmas.
During the Christmas season, she hosts several invitation-only open houses in which visitors walk through her home to see the decorations.
“People enjoy it and I enjoy it,” she said. “I have people who come every year and they look at everything and try to figure out what’s new, what’s changed.”
Graber begins decorating each year on Oct. 1. The process takes about six weeks.
Because her decorations are stored in plastic bins and organized by room — even the dangling snowflakes are stored in the order in which they hang in the window — decorating is done room-by-room beginning with the kitchen.
“Organization is very important,” Graber said.
In the kitchen, Graber wraps the cabinets in bows. Lights are hung and tiny wooden Christmas villages assembled, taking over much of the counter and tabletops.
Working her way back through the house, the music room is then transformed into the Santa room with decorative items hanging on the walls and lining the floors.
Throughout October and into November, Graber continues through the house — living room, hallway, utility room, guest bathroom, guest bedroom and finally, the master bathroom — removing artwork, furniture and knickknacks to make way for holiday decorations.
Several Christmas trees are assembled each year. One of the living room Christmas trees is adorned with white satin and pearl Christmas balls that Graber made several years ago. They hang alongside pink poinsettias on a white tree topped by an angel.
Another tree is assembled in the master bedroom. It’s decorated with golden-hued ornaments.
Graber, who worked as a music teacher in the Casa Grande Elementary School District for 33 years, began her whole-house decorating tradition soon after retiring in 2003.
Since then, she’s only taken two years off, once when she had surgery and another year when she fell off a ladder while decorating for Christmas and broke both her legs and shattered her foot. She spent months in a wheelchair.
“I had friends who offered to finish the decorating for me, but I decided to just skip it that year,” she said.
By Thanksgiving weekend each year, the decorating is finished and Graber is ready for invited guests to drop by during her open house hours. She sends out about 400 email invitations with a schedule of open house times.
Hundreds visit every year. Some people attend annually, often bringing new people.
“It’s a lot of fun seeing everyone,” she said. “And I only turn the lights on when people come over.”
Graber accumulated her decorations over the years, purchasing many of them from area stores, catalogues and yard sales as well as on her annual summer treks to Kansas to visit family. On each visit to Kansas, she stops at a year-round Christmas shop where she buys more decorations.
Some of the decorations were gifts from friends and family. Those who know Graber know she enjoys decorating every Christmas.
For Graber, it’s difficult to pinpoint a favorite room or decoration, although she’s very fond of a Nativity scene made entirely of cornhusks, created by an artist in Kansas.
“I really like it all. I like all the rooms,” she said.
But things change from year to year, especially when a new decoration is purchased.
“Because I’m always buying new decorations, it gets bigger every year,” she said. “When I see something and decide to buy it, I know exactly where it will go.”
While holiday decorating has always been an important part of the Christmas season for Graber, she said she didn’t have time for whole-house decorating until after she retired.
“Christmas has always been an important holiday for me, but growing up, it wasn’t as big a deal as it is now. We’d put up a tree and Santa would come, we’d go caroling, but we didn’t decorate the way I do now,” she said.
Graber, who also writes a lengthy Christmas letter to her friends and family every year, said she enjoys all aspects of the Christmas season, including the music, decorations and various activities. She is active in the choir at First Presbyterian Church of Casa Grande and looks forward to its annual Christmas music program.
“At church we have a wonderful Christmas Eve program. The choir sings, there’s bells and it’s so much fun,” she said.
As much as she enjoys decorating for Christmas, she skips the decorations for all other holidays.
“I don’t decorate for Halloween or any other holiday, just Christmas,” she said.
The holiday decorations remain up through the Christmas season, but on Dec. 26, she starts taking them down and packing them away in the plastic bins.
“Once Christmas is over, I’m ready to put it all away until next October,” she said.