By Nora Heston Tarte

For Mona Lucero, the Salvation Army Giving Tree offers her an opportunity to pay respects to her late grandson, who she lost in 2007. Though his life was short—he lived just an hour and a half—Baby X, as his grandmother lovingly calls him, left a big impression. Mona donates gifts to a little boy in need every year in his memory, making sure to choose a recipient with either the same name, or who is the same age her Xavier would have been that particular Christmas.

The idea of giving to a child in memoriam or to fulfill another emotional need is commonplace with The Salvation Army Christmas Angel program donors. “People choose certain children for so many… reasons, to meet personal and even emotional needs,” explains Marlene Klotz-Collins, who helped launch the program in 1986. “About this program, I have always said, ‘Who truly is the Christmas Angel? The child ‘hanging’ on the tree who receives the gifts of love or the wonderful donor who gives Christmas to that child?”

In Mona’s case, the desire to participate in the program came to her on the Christmas Baby X would have been 3 years old. As she shopped for gifts for his sisters, she found herself remembering the grandson she lost. “I started thinking I needed to do something in Baby X’s memory,” Mona says. “I didn’t want to just leave flowers or toys at his grave. I wanted to do something more.”

Remembering how much she enjoyed Christmas with her own son, the excited expression on his face as he ripped open presents, she wanted to give that same experience to another little boy, and the Christmas Angels program—which aims to help children ages newborn to 16 whose families have qualified for assistance based on a financial need—offers an opportunity to do just that. Since she couldn’t do it with Baby X, she decided to do it for him. “If I could put that same smile on another little boy, well…I know Baby X would be very happy.”

Those donated gifts go to families like Carlene Palmer’s. Her and her four children—Adina, 9, Jacob, 9, Brandon, 8, and Kylee, 5—learned about the Christmas Angels Program through church. “We were already attending the Salvation Army for church and worship service on Sundays then on Wednesday nights for the troops program,” Palmer explains. “The first year I came and stood in line to get a application. I filled it out and brought it back… Through the whole process I never once felt less of a person. The [staff] were always very encouraging and cheerful.”

For the program, each child is represented with an “angel tag” that includes information such as clothing sizes and a brief wish list. Those who want to participate select tags from trees placed in participating malls. Then, they shop for the child whose tag they selected and return gifts to the tree, providing a unique opportunity for donors to grant a child in need an extra-Merry Christmas.

Started in 1986 by the Salvation Army, The Christmas Angel program has grown into a generational tradition of giving. “We have adults who participated as children now involving their own children and even grandchildren,” Klotz-Collins shares. “As one involved from the beginning, it’s a real blessing to see how our community has embraced this program.”

Increased community participation, as well as promotional support from 3TV, has helped the program expand its reach, serving more families than ever before. “We anticipate helping 55,000 children this year,” according to Klotz-Collins, who added the program serves 50,000 on a typical year. The increased participation also allowed Salvation Army to increase the age range up to 16, when it used to cap out at age 12. On the other hand, larger numbers also mean more financially stressed families. “Family need drives the program numbers,” Klotz-Collins explains.

As the needs increase, however, so does the community response. “There is so much goodness involved with Christmas Angel. I am overwhelmed with pride, and by the privilege, to be involved with a program and tradition that have grown larger than any of us could ever have imagined when Christmas Angel began 30 years ago,” Klotz-Collins gushes.

At its core the program—and the Salvation Army as a whole—is about community helping community. Carlene’s family was recently thrown a new curveball as her youngest was diagnosed with an astrotynoma brain tumor. She admits this new challenge is going to make life a little more difficult. “But not impossible,” she laments, “Because the Salvation Army has taught my kids and also reminded me that with God all things are possible.”

Fast forward five years and Nana Mona is still participating in the Giving Tree, selecting gifts for little boys. “It really fills my heart to do this every year,” Mona shares. “It’s my way of letting my grandson know he’s not forgotten, and I will continue to do this every Christmas.”

Since receiving assistance from the program, Carlene and her family have decided to pay it forward as well. The Christmas Angel program helps Carlene and her family with gift assistance during the holidays and in return they volunteer their time to the Salvation Army every chance they get.

To make this program a success, Salvation Army works with school districts and through their 13 units of operation throughout the Valley to register families who qualify for the gifting program.

The Angel Trees, filled with tags, go up in participating locations on the weekend before Thanksgiving. There, participants can choose a tag for a child in need. “A most important request is for people to return their tag and gifts by the date listed,” Klotz-Collins reminds. If a tag is taken and a gift not left, that child will likely not receive one.

The public can visit salvationarmyphoenix.org for a list of locations to register for assistance or to find out more about the Christmas Angel program.

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