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Maricopa council approves land use agreements for new housing, business
 ksawyer  / 

MARICOPA — Tuesday night’s Maricopa City Council meeting was the first to be broadcast online with the new guidelines published by the city.

Among the guidelines were specific recommendations for the public comment section the council would need in order to move forward with voting on land rezoning for future use.

The first rezoning approval needed was for a new residential development called The Bungalows. The units will be a combination of single-family homes and shared duplexes and will sit at the corner of Bowlin Road and John Wayne Parkway, using about half of the 30 acres of land available.

The rezoning would allow an amendment of the zoning code to change the 16.95 acres of land use from employment to high-density residential. The Planning and Zoning Commission approved the rezoning at last month’s meeting, and Planning and Zoning Manager Rudy Lopez was at Tuesday’s council meeting to answer any questions regarding the new development.

“I was concerned about traffic congestion, but I was happy to see how they’ve joined this community with the community that it’s adjacent to,” Vice Mayor Nancy Smith said during the meeting. “If my understanding is correct, cars will be able to access this site from the south, and then they’ll be able to exit the site from the north and the south which I think allows for additional options and lessens the congestion in one particular area.”

There was no public comment, so the council voted unanimously to approve the amending of the zoning code.

The next zoning change that was approved last month in a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting came at the request of land owner Duane Rudnick, who requested that four acres of his land be rezoned to commercial for an RV garage and storage facility.

The proposed facility would serve as a “man-cave”-esque complex, and would sit on the north side of Farrell Road approximately half a mile west of Porter Road. The proposal was met with some opposition, mainly due to the height of the complex and the idea of drawing “party” activities to the area.

“I think this project sounds really interesting and pretty cool, but I did see ... two letters of concern,” Smith said. “I just wanted to talk through it and make sure we are considering the folks that live on the opposite side of the canal, which is Santa Rosa Springs.”

The proposed storage facility would sit on a vertical sliver of land nestled between the up-and-coming Santa Rosa Springs community to the west and potential commercial land to the east. A public meeting was held to gather opinions from neighbors, which yielded positive feedback from those who attended. The main concern by future residents of Santa Rosa Springs was detailed in the two letters submitted to the council and involved concerns over the change of scenery with the added building.

However, in the end the council agreed that, regardless of how the neighboring property was developed, it would culminate in the same type of fence being built and obstructing the view.

Lopez also gave his support to the land owner for his determination to use the oddly-shaped plot of land.

“The subject site is an irregular lot,” Lopez said. “Very wide and very linear in depth. It’s such an interesting lot that we actually commended the applicant to come in here and find a way to develop the property.”

Council voted unanimously to approve the rezoning of the land from medium density residential to commercial for the purposes of the new RV garage and storage space, and adjourned for the evening.

Council plans to reconvene for their regular meeting May 5.

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Maricopa group distributes more than 1,000 masks, has eyes set on more
 ksawyer  / 

MARICOPA — Face masks in Maricopa have been sold out of stores for over a month now but are still proven to be one of the most effective methods to stop the spread of COVID-19.

A group of women in Maricopa saw the shortage that was happening and decided to help the community. The call to action came from Jennifer Ford, a well-known community member in Maricopa, who lost her 16-year-old son Nate in a tragic car accident five years ago.

Ford, a longtime member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and mother of five, said she had a revelation after her son’s passing.

“When he died, the thing that I found that helped was serving other people,” Ford said. “Being in this pandemic that we’re in right now, we’re just sitting around, and it seems like there was such a need for so many things. Masks were the newest thing. … I can’t sew at all, but I can organize. After Nate’s death, I was able to make connections to the community. So I knew how to do that, and to gather resources.”

First on her list of contacts was Maricopa Stake Relief Society President Vickie Rucker. The Relief Society is a women’s organization within the church. As president of the area stake, Rucker was able to spread the word quickly between wards.

By April 6, they had a Facebook group called Masks for Maricopa and close to 100 volunteer crafters made up of mostly women.

“(It’s rewarding) to see the response of the women, and how generous they are with their time and efforts and the commodities they have at home, that they can just donate and contribute and be glad that they’re going for a good cause,” Rucker said. “It’s always amazing to see how women come together and rub shoulders and want to help each other.”

The crafters got to work, trading materials like elastic and fabric to sew as many masks as possible. But Jennifer still wasn’t sure how many they’d end up with, and she was alarmed when co-founder Sherry Allen suggested the idea of distributing on Easter weekend.

“Sherry said, ‘Jen, let’s have a distribution this Saturday,’ ... and I was like, ‘The one before Easter? I don’t know if we can do it. That’s just too soon.’ And she’s like, ‘We can do it. You keep putting it out there, and we can do it.’ And sure enough, our goal was 100 masks, and we had over 400.”

The first distribution went by in a flurry of masks, with cars lined up around the block at Butterfield Elementary School. With two masks per car, they were gone in a few hours.

The crafters weren’t done, though. With a goal of 1,000 masks, the group set out for another distribution the following Saturday, April 18. Masks were coming in from all over, even being shipped overnight from Utah. Not everyone was supportive though.

“There’s always somebody that is telling you it’s not good enough, but that’s the world,” Ford said. “They’re gonna tell you the masks aren’t protecting anything or people saying, ‘I don’t have time for this.’ It’s volunteer, so if you don’t have time or it’s too much, nobody’s judging, we get it. … But for those that can, here’s a great opportunity.”

Masks were still pouring into Ford’s house the day before their April 18 distribution, and she was continually shocked at the growing number piled in her house. Ford’s organizing of this event is tied to her wish to repay the community that did so much for her when Nate died.

“There’s no way I could repay them,” Ford said. “Maricopa became one, they came together.”

Nate’s football and baseball jersey numbers were temporarily retired by MHS, and the community lined the streets with flags on his birthday after his death.

“People will say he was a great football player, a great baseball player — he wasn’t,” Ford joked. “He was never number one. He gave all he had, but the biggest thing is he was the captain. And at the end of the football game, he would go to the other team, find that best player and shake his hand and say great job.”

Nate touched many in his short life, she said, and people young and old wrote letters to the family after his passing detailing their memories of him. It was his kindness that people remembered the most after Nate died, and it’s his kindness that carries on in the service work Ford does today.

“That’s why we do what we do,” Ford said. “When you leave here, you want to be able to touch as many people with hope as you can, that they might feel uplifted. He’s just a great example of that, and we try to carry it on as many ways as we can.”

On April 18, the team of Maricopans distributed a steady stream of masks as the parking lot filled again. With the leftover masks, about 75 were donated to a Maricopa police officer for distribution. The others were packed into two boxes to be donated to Amazon and Walmart employees, while a few were donated to doctors offices.

More than 1,150 masks were made.

“People would say ‘Who is this kid?’ It wasn’t Nate, just like Masks for Maricopa isn’t Jen Ford. It is a hope, it’s a love,” Ford said. “That’s what the relief society organization does. You find that need, and you fill it. You fill it just because you love people and because that’s why you’re here. And in the end, all you’re doing is filling your own holes.”

The page has already taken on a new project, making 3,000 masks for the Navajo Nation.

The Facebook group Masks for Maricopa can be joined by anybody wishing to help.

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Pinal grandparents face unique challenges raising children during shutdown
 ksawyer  / 

MARICOPA — As COVID-19 has spread across the United States, the same trends in deaths related to the illness around the globe appear on American soil.

The elderly, ages 65 and older, make up the largest portion of deaths by age group in the U.S. currently, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though many assume the elderly to have long passed child rearing, a number of them have become new parents to grandchildren — some by necessity and others by choice. Regardless, they share the burden of being relied upon by young children while being most vulnerable to the illness.

Elizabeth Santiago is the program director for United Way’s Families, Friends and Neighbors Program, an outreach effort that helps parents of children up to age 5 in Pinal County receive support. The program is funded through the state's First Things First program.

“(Our mission is) to provide them with the support, the encouragement and the training and the materials, so that they realize they’re not alone,” Santiago said. “They realize there’s so many others like them doing the same thing.”

Santiago says grandparents make up over half of the 350 Pinal program users. Of those, another half are primary caregivers for grandchildren.

“In regards to thinking about our grandparents, you’re talking about a population that often is overlooked,” Santiago said. “You’re talking about grandparents that — it’s been a long time since they’ve raised children and they’re doing it in a whole new world.”

This is the reality for 62-year-old Elizabeth Felix, who took legal custody of her six grandchildren three years ago. Felix and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter. Unfortunately, their daughter fell into addiction and was no longer able to appropriately care for her six children. Felix won custody of the children three years ago and moved them from Phoenix to Maricopa in July. They range from 7 to 17 years old and are living under one roof with the current stay-at-home order, with the exception of their eldest who currently lives outside the home. 

“They’re just bouncing off the walls,” Felix said exasperatedly. “They’re picking fights with each other. … The bickering, the boredom, the stress.”

Her grandkids go to elementary, middle and high schools and all have separate schoolwork to complete. She once had “grandma time” during the day to shop and clean but now devotes four to five hours to homework.

“It’s different when they’re in school, and it’s not family members trying to teach them — unless they’ve been homeschooled all their life, which these kids haven’t,” Felix said. “By the time I’m done, I’m just frazzled.”

She tries her best to teach them, but she feels at a disadvantage due to her age. Some subjects, like math, have changed completely since Felix was in school.

“The older parents like me, the grandparents, we’re not set up to teach these children,” Felix said. “This isn’t the way we were taught … when I went to school 45 years ago.”

The kids also currently have no laptops in the home, and they share a couple of iPhones and an iPad for schoolwork.

Felix explained that several of her grandchildren were already struggling with schoolwork before the shutdown. Her 7-year-old struggles to read well, and her 8-year-old was receiving help for a severe stutter.

“If you’ve got one kid or two kids, OK, but when you’ve got almost a class,” Felix said with a laugh. “Especially these kids ... they struggle, all of them.”

Felix is a stay-at-home mom and normally has her husband to rely on when he comes home on weekends from his construction job in Ajo. However, he’s been stuck in their trailer in Ajo for the past few weeks, unable to continue coming and going to Maricopa due to quarantine restrictions. He must remain there to continue providing for the family.

Meanwhile, Felix is trying to control the chaos at home.

“I try to keep a routine. We get up, we do our work, we do some schoolwork,” Felix said. “I thought maybe a structured routine would kind of help. But the older ones, they think because they’re not in school, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t sit up till 2 in the morning on their games.”

Felix does all she can to keep their spirits up though.

Last week, the family piled into their Chevy Suburban and hit the drive-thru of Culver’s. The vehicle has a DVD player, so they parked in the parking lot, rolled the windows down, opened up their food and had a “movie night out.”

“They had fun,” Felix said. “They were actually excited, can you believe that?”

Another time, Felix resorted to driving them through a car wash and letting them play in an open field for a few minutes.

“I had to get them out of there,” she said laughing.

It’s all in the name of social distancing, to maintain their health and her own.

When the virus hit, she was honest with her grandkids about what could happen if she contracted the deadly illness. She says that, while tempers are a little thin at the Felix house, the grandkids understand the risks and don’t ask to break quarantine.

“I said, ‘Kids, we can’t go out,’” Felix said. “I just told them right out, ‘We can’t go out among everybody until this is over because if it comes back home to grandma, it could kill grandma.’ They understand that. … They fight more, and they’re bored, but they know they can’t go out and don’t throw a fit about it.”

Santiago says there are many grandparents out there who have sole custody of their grandkids like Felix, but still another large percentage are grandparents who share parenting duties with their children, often living under the same roof.

This is the case for FFN program member Patricia Nix, 63.

Nix is originally from Oklahoma, but she moved out west to stay with her three adult children after the death of her husband.

“When he passed away, I kind of got rid of everything and just kind of drove to my kids for a while,” Nix said. “I just kind of visited for a couple of years actually, and then I got sick.”

She was hit hard with a breast cancer diagnosis and went through six months of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy before going into remission.

She already had five grown grandchildren, but when her youngest son Louis Roulain III left the Navy, she got a surprising phone call that had her packing her bags to move to San Tan Valley right away.

“I wasn’t expecting any more grandkids,” Nix said. “Beating cancer and then finding out I’m going to be a grandmother again, and me moving in and actually being here from birth to this point — it’s just fulfilled my life. I mean, it’s just like, life is renewed for me. I have this huge will to live, just hearing those little boys call me Meemaw.”

Her two newest grandchildren are the light of her life. Three-year-old Louis IV and 1-year-old Mikey are hers to take care of during regular work hours while her son and daughter-in-law continue working. Louis IV was named the fourth Louis in a long line of Choctaw Native Americans in the family.

Her son works for Intel, and her daughter-in-law works for Banner Health from home.

“She sequesters herself upstairs in her room on the computer and I have the boys downstairs,” Nix said. “Some days it’s really, really difficult to chase them because toddlers can run and they like to go outside and it’s hot out there. … The energy level has been hard.”

The two boys keep her busy — so busy with their new 1-year-old, in fact, Nix says she’ll have a hard time leaving.

“I thought I would live with them for a couple years and then get a place on my own, whatever. And then they had another one and I thought, ‘I’m not going nowhere,’” she said.

Still, she’s happy to hand them over when the work day is done so she can have some downtime. She’s also careful to firmly maintain the classic grandma role.

“I’ve been real careful to not be the dominant figure in their life. I just want to be the grandma that’s kind of back here with the nurturing and the loving and let them be the parents,” Nix said.

Nix will continue helping the family as long as she can, but COVID-19 is a new added stressor to the household of five.

“I don’t think people are taking it serious enough. I just couldn’t believe there’s beaches full of kids (in Florida),” Nix said. “For me, it’s scary because my immune system is so compromised.”

She and the other ladies in her group of breast cancer survivors, the “Pink Sisters,” share their concerns with one another. One woman has already sent them all face masks, but Nix is worried it’s not enough. She takes Louis IV to a lunch pickup every day, but other than that she remains firmly at home.

“It’s really difficult,” Nix said. “I’ll be glad when it’s to a point where we can go outside."

Grandparents raising grandchildren are already such a small subsection of American families that they are often overlooked, and their needs are exacerbated by a crisis that overwhelmingly affects their age group.

In these tumultuous times, programs like FFN can help bridge the gap between grandparents and their grandchildren by providing lessons and materials that Nix has personally benefited from.

“I wish more people knew about this program and took advantage of it because I thought I knew it honestly, but times have changed and you don’t. You have to be more aware,” Nix said.

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Maricopa food truck owner gives back to first responders
 ksawyer  / 

MARICOPA — The hungry firefighters and police officers who crowded in the parking lot of the Maricopa Police Department on Wednesday were all waiting for one thing: some tasty Vietnamese fusion food hot off SV Gourmet Kitchen’s food truck.

Miller Dao, owner and operator of SV Gourmet Kitchen, was there sticking his head through the window and serving up orange chicken, teriyaki, veggie and steak bowls for free to the crowd of first responders. He worked in the truck alongside his chef Mike Gustafson and 17-year-old helper Johnny.

He gave all the credit to his three local business sponsors, who helped him raise the funds to purchase the food he served — Scott Dillman with Rent-a-Vet, Chris Cahall with American Family Insurance and Michael Hollingshead with MAC’s Air Cooling Systems, who donated $250 for food.

“They were very thankful,” Dao said of the first responders. “They were grateful that there are people in our community that support them. (It) gives them motivation to work and to serve our community with love.”

Together, they served about 80 firefighters and police officers. Dao said he understands the challenges of being a first responder, because he has experienced it firsthand.

“As a former police officer, I know how tough it is to be out there dealing with circumstances daily,” Dao said. “Especially with the virus spreading, they’re the ones who are out there protecting us.”

Dao was with the Maricopa Police Department for nearly a decade before leaving the force. He adopted twin girls and now operates his food truck business. After serving the first responders at the police station, Dao swung by Walmart to serve the community for a few hours.

Though he has closed down his food truck’s hours, he is opening when he is able to serve the community.

“Everything moves everyday,” Dao said. “We don’t know how it’s gonna turn out, so I’m just going to play it by ear. If I can serve the workers, I’m willing to go out there and do it.”

Dao already has plans to come back to the Walmart parking lot next week, this time to serve the workers for free. He has even gotten his first pledge, a donation of $1,000 from Courtny Tyler with State Farm Insurance to go toward the purchase of food.

If funds keep coming in, Dao says he’ll keep showing up. He plans to serve up his Vietnamese fusion style food to Fry’s and Bashas workers the following week, and then see about feeding local health care workers after that.

“It’s the minimum I can do,” Dao said. “It’s a way for me to say, ‘Thank you for supporting me for the past few years.’ That’s the minimum. Let me do that for you.”