Betty Callen didn't think anything was unusual when a neighbor invited her over for drinks last month.

The neighbor's friend, Ronna Spigariol, was in town from Portland, Ore., and Callen, 74, had spent time with the pair when Spigariol was here for a previous visit.

Callen wasn't thinking about all the soda-can tabs she has collected for Mount Zion Lutheran Church to donate to the Ronald McDonald House.

"We were having cocktails, and she (Spigariol) said, 'You better finish your drink because I have a surprise for you,' " Callen recalled.

The women walked out to Spigariol's SUV. When Spigariol opened the back, Callen was shocked to discover it was filled to the roof with one-gallon milk jugs — each full of soda-can tabs.

"I squealed like a pig, I was so excited," Callen said.

Ronald McDonald Houses across the country — including one in Tucson — provide food and a place to stay for families with children undergoing medical treatment in hospitals, at a nominal cost. Schools, churches and other groups collect soda-can tabs for the houses to recycle and collect money.

Bringing the tabs to Tucson was nothing, really, Spigariol said in a telephone interview from Oregon.

She is an accountant and has a client who has been collecting the pull tabs for some time, she said.

In Oregon, cans and bottles are worth 5 cents each if you return them for recycling, she said. But pull tabs aren't worth a thing.

So Spigariol traded all her cans and bottles to her client in exchange for his soda-can tabs.

Then her aunt moved to Scottsdale, and she planned to help with the move.

"I decided it was time for Betty to get these pull tabs," Spigariol said. "We just filled a truck with a bunch of stuff, including all those pull tabs."

They made a great buffer between furniture, she said.

She couldn't wait to get them to Callen, whose generous spirit had left an impression on her when the women met last year.

"She's just a very nice woman with a great attitude," Spigariol said.

With some help, Callen delivered the 54 milk jugs to the Ronald McDonald House, 3838 N. Campbell Ave., on June 19.

Erin McIntire, director of development for the house, was on hand to accept them.

It's unusual to get such a big haul from as far away as Portland, Ore., she said.

"It's really remarkable that people seem so endeared to the program and work so hard at it," McIntire said.

She's not sure how old the can-tab program is but guessed it started at least 15 years ago. Other Ronald McDonald Houses do it as well.

So why collect tabs, and not the whole can?

Simple: "The cans attract bugs and they're bigger and harder to transport," McIntire said.

Also, the program began with schoolchildren doing the collecting and it was easier for them to carry a little sandwich bag of can tabs to school than to haul a trash bag full of cans, she said.

Last year by this time, the house had collected more than $4,000 from a recycling company in exchange for can tabs, she said.

With the recession and lower aluminum prices, this year, the house hasn't made it to $4,000 yet, but it still helps.

"Eight thousand dollars (for the year) is nothing to sneeze at," McIntire said. All the money goes directly into running the house — paying electric bills, buying supplies and the like.

"It's not a huge amount of money for each individual tab," she said, "but the point is, it really adds up."

DID YOU KNOW

Part of the proceeds from every Arizona Daily Star sold at 38 local McDonald's restaurants supports the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Arizona. The partnership began in July 2004.

On June 17, representatives from several local McDonald's and from Tucson Newspapers Inc. presented a $53,000 check to Ronald McDonald House management. The amount represents donations collected for a little more than a year, including contributions from each McDonald's owner-operator.

Contact reporter Shelley Shelton at 618-1921 or sshelton@azstarnet.com.