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Pita Patio hosts holiday market, hopes for more
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COOLIDGE — Residents of Coolidge looking for an escape from the sheltered realities of the pandemic have had one reliable venue throughout the past few months. The Pita Patio Grill has continued to host live events — with social distancing precautions recommended — on a weekly basis, including a holiday market on Dec. 12.

For the vendors and visitors at the market, the pandemic took a back seat but was not forgotten.

Coolidge Pita Patio Holiday Market

Among the ornaments, jewelry and metalwork on display were custom mask holders with quips such as “Spread Kindness Not Germs” and “Baby It’s COVID Outside.”

Nathan Smith, the “San Tan Santa,” explained that the pandemic had created numerous difficulties for holiday-themed businesses.

“The whole social distancing thing has been tough for a small outfit like mine,” Smith said. “I’m not going to turn away a kid that wants to hug Santa because he or she doesn’t have a mask on. I’m not going to take that away from them.”

Smith said that his bookings were done two-thirds from previous years, despite precautions such as a clear face shield and frequent testing.

“I hope people are smart and make good choices, get vaccinated so we can get back to some kind of normalcy,” Smith said. “With this virus, some people are choosing to take safety measures, some people aren’t but it affects everybody.”

Families at the market said that the lack of activities in the area had affected them and their children during the holiday season.

“It’s hard for our kids,” said Coolidge resident Alvin Smalley. “They can’t go to school, they’re stuck at home. This market is a good idea just so they can go out and see people.”

Another family, Randi and James Villars, said their kids had struggled with at-home learning, and while they were lucky enough to have childcare through a family member, others didn’t have that luxury.

“Every situation is different,” James Villars said. “You’ve got to find a way that works for you and your situation.” Villars was nevertheless happy the market was going on and small businesses were being supported.

According to Jeff Kramer, co-owner of the Pita Patio Grill, the vendors were pleased and expressed hope that the market would become a more frequent event.

When Kramer and Nick Tsalikis opened Pita Patio Grill in November 2019, they envisioned it as the start of a major revitalization effort along Coolidge Avenue. Kramer wanted to see Coolidge become a center for live music, or bring more cafes or a brewery to the area to take advantage of the promise brought on by Nikola and other industries moving in.

That plan hasn’t disappeared, but the pandemic made the realities of business expansion in the city uncertain.

“People are not coming out like they used to,” Kramer said. “There’s places still shutting down or struggling to stay open that serve liquor and have entertainment. … It hurts everybody.”

Although city leaders in Coolidge have shied away from mandating COVID-19 related restrictions, Kramer said the state’s liquor board holds leverage over bars and restaurants by controlling alcohol sales and potentially suspending licenses for non-compliant businesses.

For the time being, Kramer said the restaurant was exploring grants to expand outdoor seating. They also own the building next-door to the patio, which Kramer hoped in the future could be home to a pizzeria or bakery. A coffee shop, Nana’s, opened up on the premises in November.

“People are tired of being shut in,” Kramer said. “It’s affecting their mood. All we want to do is provide entertainment and have people come out and have a good time.”

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CUSD honorees find opportunities amid a tumultuous year for learning
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COOLIDGE — The pandemic has, at least temporarily, disrupted and reshaped learning environments. But connecting with new technology is the lesser challenge of pandemic-interrupted education. The real trick, as Coolidge teachers Christi Jones and Blasa Ornelas can attest, is maintaining the rapport with students that made their in-class approach so successful.

“The biggest thing we can do as a staff is let our students know we are there and that we care,” said Jones, a Coolidge art teacher for both the junior high and high school. Jones has taken a lead role in implementing the district’s “7 Mindsets” program, which focuses on social and emotional learning for both students and staff.

“We’re giving students an opportunity to see that they are not alone in their struggles,” Jones said. “Their teachers, other people out in the world, everyone has a bit of a struggle, and that is OK. We just have to learn techniques so we can overcome those struggles and move forward.”

Jones and Ornelas were recently awarded Teacher and Support Staff of the Year, respectively, by the Coolidge Chamber of Commerce. Both women describe students who depend on strong communication with their teachers and staff, and whose growth was threatened by the shift away from the classroom.

“In a self-contained classroom it is really hard to keep them away from each other,” said Ornelas, a paraprofessional who works with special education students. Ornelas, who has also filled in for other staff due to illness this fall, says that many of her students are used to being in groups working together.

“I don’t know how to say to them, ‘I’m sorry, social distancing, use an air hug,’” Ornelas said, “but we have to do that now.”

Ornelas said they have overall taken it better than she’d first feared, and that her students understand they are still loved and cared for by the teachers and staff. Nevertheless, she describes one student who was new to the district last year, who initially refused to talk but had made great strides before the switch back to remote learning last week.

Ornelas said her own children, in second and sixth grade, have told her they were more comfortable in a classroom than behind a computer camera.

The communication gap is one of many reasons why neither teacher, and many others, believe remote learning is an ideal situation.

In Coolidge and elsewhere, students’ graduation and secondary education has been put at risk. At the most recent school board meeting, Superintendent Charie Wallace addressed the problem of students skipping out on the remote "classes." Even students who maintain strong grades are at a disadvantage if scholarship funding falls this winter; in a city like Coolidge, with so many low-income families, that is a major concern.

Jones also said she was disappointed in seeing many events canceled. In the past, both she and Ornelas would help write grants so students could visit art museums in the Phoenix metro area. “Students loved that,” Jones said. “So many of them have never seen art in person and it was fun for them to get out of town.”

But beyond the limitations of the remote platform itself, Jones admits that teachers, and parents, now have the added fear of checking after their student’s health.

Jones and Ornelas described the fear of students getting COVID-19 as a major source of extra stress. “It will be midnight and I’m thinking, ‘oh that kid wasn’t here, I hope they are OK,’” Jones said. “It just kind of occupies you.”

If there is a silver lining to the situation, it was in Coolidge’s foresight and investment in technology tools. Coolidge had earlier made sure each student was equipped with an iPad, which made them better prepared than other districts. Jones also said that many students who were previously nervous to ask for help had been taking advantage of the iMessaging technology and seeking more help than before. In her art classes, Jones has used remote learning to teach students about cameras and photo formatting, as well as digital drawing apps and sketchbooks.

Ornelas said she has noticed parents or other family members are very engaged with the technology, particularly for children with special needs.

The teachers’ overall success is evident in the continued passion students have displayed for their work. According to Jones, many of her students have been taking home recent ceramics work from the art studio to give away as Christmas gifts.

Jones was able to get some metal supplies for an advanced art class this year, working on techniques such as sawing, enameling and stamping. She also had prepped for remote learning by collecting donations from family and friends, so that each of her students could have an art supply kit to take home.

Jones was also able to organize a Coolidge photography contest as a way of both providing something positive for students to participate in, but also to support local businesses during a time of need.

“Originally, I thought it may be something small but I was quickly astonished by more and more staff reaching out to donate,” Jones said. “They truly demonstrated the meaning of being Coolidge Strong and made me proud to both live and work in our community.”

Jones, who has two master’s degrees in education, has been teaching in the district since 2014. Ornelas is herself a graduate of the Coolidge school district; she had worked at Hohokam Elementary and Imagine Prep in Coolidge before switching to the junior high and high school two years ago. This is the second year in a row Ornelas was honored with the chamber award.

Joint church holiday efforts include toy drive, friendly Grinch
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COOLIDGE — The pandemic period has affected households nationwide and highlighted the ways in which many are struggling. The New Hope Community Church and Hope International Ministry partnered this month on their first toy drive to help service families for the holidays. This week, Toys for Tots will deliver the toys to 150 of those families.

A higher-than-expected number of families signed up. Hope International Ministry’s First Lady Audri Warren said people on the overflow list would be able to pick up toys directly, depending on what they had available. Warren said that they would potentially purchase toys themselves to fill the need.

In the effort to collect donations, the churches have found an unlikely ally in the “Cooltown Grinch,” an anonymous disguised member of the Better Human Coalition, who had been appearing at various locations around Coolidge for photo-ops in exchange for contributions to the Hope International Food Bank.

“The Grinch just contacted us one day and want to help us,” Warren said. “She wanted to get us some donations and food, and from there she just took off.”

The ministry also received some cash donations, including from Pacific Scientific Energetic Materials Company in Chandler, and from the Pita Patio Grill in Coolidge.

New Hope Community Church First Lady Michelle Young said the majority of requests were for infant socks and underwear; applications for toys filled up much quicker than expected, highlighting the need within the community.

“We recognize this is a difficult time, so we’re everything we can help or support,” Young said. “Especially during the holidays, we want to send the message that someone does care and that you are not alone, we are here as a resource as well.”

Hope International’s Food Bank delivers free meals to the community twice a month. Last Saturday New Hope Community Church conducted a ‘drive-through’ nativity show, which included giveaway prizes, hot chocolate and cookies.