As long as she can remember, Meredith Tallis has been "nuts about helping people."
When she was a child, she spent hours at a nearby nursing home after school helping the elderly. At age 7, she told her adoptive parents she wanted to someday have an organization to help others. When she was 12, she was a candy-striper at Tucson Medical Center.
The 55-year-old mother of three runs local nonprofit Big Hearts With Helping Hands — helping single moms, needy families and people with disabilities get necessities. That includes transportation, housing, food, toiletries, clothing, blankets and sometimes, just a listening ear.
This time of year, she's busy running her Secret Santa program, connecting needy families with community members willing to purchase gifts for the kids.
There are more than 60 children on Tallis' list this year. Thirty are still waiting to be chosen by a Secret Santa.
Tallis doesn't have much but if there aren't enough volunteer Santas, she uses her own money to make sure each child gets a gift.
"I'll go sell things to get money to get them stuff," Tallis said. "We find a way."
And not just for Christmas.
Tallis has helped more than 150 families since her nonprofit became official in 2008 by connecting them with resources, furnishing their homes, bringing them food, teaching life skills and helping the kids get what they need.
Her desire to help single mothers stems from never knowing her own mother, who put Tallis up for adoption when she was born.
"She didn't have the support and was pregnant out of wedlock," Tallis said. "So, it's me being adopted and knowing what she didn't have and the abuse I had gone through."
Tallis said she endured physical and mental abuse at the hands of her adoptive parents, who are both deceased, until she was put into foster care at the age of 15.
In the future, Tallis hopes to build a community called City of Challenges with housing, a garden and educational facilities to help families, single moms, pregnant teens and people with disabilities get on their feet.
"Meredith Tallis has a heart of gold and a giving spirit to match," said Jessica Badowski, an avid volunteer and supporter of Big Hearts with Helping Hands. "She is passionate about her mission to help moms, specifically, and families stay together. This Secret Santa Project is just part of the work she does all year."
Brittany Ramos, a 25-year-old mother of two recently reached out to Tallis for help when she and her family got an apartment after circumstances landed them in a homeless shelter.
"I was really depressed because I didn't think I could do anything for my kids for Christmas," Ramos said. "It has just been a really rough year. She has taken a huge weight off my shoulders by the help they're giving my family this year."
Tallis helped the family with clothes for Ramos and her husband to start new jobs, shoes for her kids and items for their new apartment. She's been there to talk to them when the stress was unbearable.
"Meredith has been just an inspiration and just somebody to talk to," Ramos said. "She keeps reminding me to calm down and not to stress out and everything is gonna be OK."
She also put Ramos' two kids, ages 2 and 4, in the Secret Santa program.
"They're honestly angels sent from God," Ramos said. "If it wasn't for them I honestly don't know if my kids would have been able to have a Christmas."
How to help
Tallis is looking for at least 30 more Secret Santas to purchase gifts for children by Dec. 18.
Gifts are delivered to the families Dec. 23 and 24.
Secret Santas have the option to go with Tallis to make deliveries if they want to meet the families.