With Thanksgiving opening a holiday season made unusual by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mesa will be attempting to spread holiday cheer and avoiding the surging virus.
Many of the city’s traditional holiday events have been altered by the pandemic curtailed in format while food drives and other community-wide charitable endeavors have taken on a heightened urgency in the wake of COVID-19’s economic toll.
Generous residents donated turkeys at the Mesa Civic Center, workers erected a temporary ice-skating rink near City Hall, and Mesa firefighters stood on street corners to solicit funds for their long-delayed annual boot campaign.
Merry Main Street, the city’s annual Christmas event, kicks off at 5:50 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27, with a “virtual tree lighting’’ ceremony that residents can view on the city’s Facebook site instead of attending in person.
The Winter Wonderland ice-skating rink also opens east of City Hall on the same day but with a series of protocols aimed at reducing virus spread.
No more than 50 skaters will be allowed at any given time and tickets must be purchased in advance on the city web site, merrymainst.com. Santa also will start making his weekend visits on Nov. 28.
“It’s fun. It gets people in the spirit of the holidays,’’ said Kevin Christopher, a city spokesman.
Downtown Mesa also will be adorned with vintage Christmas decorations
not used since 1967 to give the area a unique look.
The city’s annual Breakfast with Santa, which draws hundreds of kids, is now the Drive-Thru Breakfast with Santa.
At 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Dec. 12, families can drive into the parking lot of the Mesa Convention Center, 263 N. Center St. kids can get a goodie bag with holiday crafts, to-go breakfast for each registrant and a greeting from old St. Nick.
“The brief drive-thru includes the sights and sounds of Christmas to get into the holiday spirit,” Christoper said.
Each child in a vehicle must be registered to get an email with a letter to Santa that they are encouraged to complete and bring to the event to give him or his elves. Then, they will receive a special return letter in the mail from Santa before Christmas.
Registration is required at mesaparks.com and the cost is $3 per child.
Proceeds from the breakfast benefit City of Mesa’s Community Spirit, a charitable fund raising and volunteer organization that supports the parks department’s adaptive programs, youth sports and aquatics program.
Teaming up with city departments for the drive-thru is Personal Touch Catering.
Meanwhile, Mesa police, firefighters and even a group of motorcycle enthusiasts are going beyond the festive trappings of Christmas to bring joy to needy people and families.
Founded by Greg “Troll’’ Hughes, an East Valley motorcycle enthusiast, “Troll’s Teddy Bear Run’’ will be held for the fifth consecutive year after reaping more than 1,000 stuffed animals last year that police and firefighters hand out to abused and traumatized children.
Motorcyclists visit several locations on Dec. 5 before wrapping up at Superstition Harley Davidson, where donors can drop off stuffed animals even if they don’t ride. For information, go to TrollsBikerWorld.com.
“Our methodology might change because of COVID-19, but our hearts are still the same,’’ said Shelly Ward, victim services coordinator for the Mesa Police Department’s Family Advocacy Center.
Ward said she delights in bringing an abused or traumatized child into a room where the stuffed animals are kept after they have been interviewed by a detective.
“I tell them, there’s a friend here, find a friend. They just love it,’’ Ward said. “It’s the coolest thing in the world after working with heartbreaking stuff.’’
Mesa Fire Capt. Steve Heyer, executive director of East Valley Firefighter Charities, said their annual toy drive is scheduled for Dec. 4, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Fry’s supermarket at Guadalupe and Signal Butte Road.
Although 26 Mesa firefighters and five civilians have contracted COVID-19 despite wearing masks and other personal protective equipment, they are setting aside their own struggles to help others.
The annual campaign includes firefighters from the Mesa and Gilbert fire departments, the Superstition Fire District in Apache Junction and several others who belong to the same union local.
Sports equipment like soccer balls and footballs, dolls and anything electronic – even simple headphones – are always appreciated, he said.
Mesa fire crews are adopting 20 needy families selected by school nurses at Mesa Public Schools, delivering meals and gift cards the day before Thanksgiving, he said.
Their Christmas giving program is much larger, with firefighters from several East Valley agencies that adopting 100-200 families, trying to ensure that every child receives a gift.
Fire crews also often adopt a family for Christmas, shelling out of their pocket, if necessary, to buy gift cards or Christmas trees to bring a little bit of cheer into an otherwise bleak year dominated by the pandemic.
“I think from what we are seeing, people are in need more than any other year,’’ Heyer said. “Our firefighters have a unique opportunity on 911 calls to see folks in need of help. My crews will go above and beyond to buy a Fry’s or Safeway gift card.’’
He said Mesa residents “are in such need they have stuff like socks and underwear and pajamas on their list.’’
Mesa firefighters also splurged for one needy woman who told them she has been sleeping in a simple plastic lawn chair in a crowded house because she had nowhere else to go.
The firefighters bought the woman
a recliner, Heyer said, and delivered it last week.
Heyer said needy people are often overcome emotionally when the firefighters deliver the gifts.
“Typically, mom and dad are in tears crying,’’ Heyer said.
Mesa Police are continuing another holiday tradition through the Shop with a Cop program.
Kylie Clore, police community programs coordinator, said a $5,000 grant from the Wal-Mart at Mesa Riverview will enable 45 needy elementary school students to have breakfast with an officer on Dec. 5 and to buy gifts worth about $100 for their families.
The needy students are selected by Mesa Public Schools employees. The program has been in effect for about 10 years and many officers have developed a rapport with children, who come back year after year to officers who buy them gifts, she said.
“We have officers every year who can’t wait to participate,’’ Clore said. “We’ve had officers buy a tree’’ for needy families.
She said the children are from low-income backgrounds and some have had experiences with the police that were nowhere near as uplifting, having watched answer domestic violence calls at their homes.
“A lot of them have had some interaction with officers. This is positive interaction with officers,’’ Clore said.
City Councilman Dave Luna said he is working with Mesa Public Schools, the Mesa Police Association and Los Bomberes, a group of Hispanic firefighters, to help about 100 families with at Jefferson Elementary School in East Mesa.
The groups are donating bicycles and other gifts to the children, who come from impoverished households heavily affected by layoffs during the pandemic.
“The whole idea is to create a holiday experience for children living in poverty,’’ Luna said. “We’re hoping to make these families happy.’’