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Tucson family's Christmas tradition: Hundreds of gifts for needy families in Nogales
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Tucson family's Christmas tradition: Hundreds of gifts for needy families in Nogales

Hoping to set an example for her children to be grateful, humble and grow up helping those less privileged, Janneth Cardenas started sponsoring needy Nogales families about 20 years ago.

This year with the help of sponsors across the United States, the family was able to provide Christmas gifts for more than 1,000 Mexican children.

After finding families to sponsor on their own for many years, the family partnered with Radio Xeny about three years ago. The popular Nogales radio station has a program, Cartitas a Santa (letters to Santa) that shared the same goal as the family: giving gifts to families in need.

Through the program, the radio station accepts a certain number of letters children write to Santa and shares them with sponsors on both sides of the border.

This year, about 3,400 letters were accepted.

A family tradition

Helping Nogales, Sonora, families has become a family tradition that has grown over the years.

This year, Janneth requested 1,064 letters, almost 500 more letters than last year.

With the help of her children and her brother in Florida, the family was able to answer every letter.

From her home in Utah, Karin Steingraber, 26, Janneth’s oldest daughter, managed gift deliveries to her mom’s work office. She distributed more than 300 letters this year, promoting the program on her social-media pages. She answered questions and checked in with sponsors to make sure gifts were on track to arrive in time for distribution.

It got stressful at times, she says, but once she saw the children’s reaction when receiving the gifts, all of the effort was worth it.

“I sometimes forget what it’s for and then seeing their face, everything just, it doesn’t even matter because they’re just so happy with the simplest things,” the daughter said.

She said the children they sponsor sometimes ask for simple everyday things like shoes, socks or warm clothes. Such simple requests, she said, provide perspective to her own life.

Janneth said she’s grateful to see her children are still involved and eager to help every year.

“It was good to see them know that this is sort of part of the culture that we formed as a family,” she said, “making sure that during Christmas everyone, not just them, has something, some way of being able to celebrate the holidays and that we can bring joy to a family who’s not as blessed as we are.”

Each of her five children sponsored at least two letters and helped track down other letters that matched donations.

“I think there’s just really an incredible amount of joy and peace that I feel in my heart to see that they really have such good hearts,” Janneth said.

Santa’s helpers

Many of the letters were distributed in Southern Arizona, but Janneth’s brother, who lives in South Florida, was able to sponsor 100 letters through his accounting firm, Paxis Management Group. Others in Utah, Texas, New York, and Wyoming, among other states, and even someone in Puerto Rico mailed in gifts that would eventually end up in the hands of grateful Nogalenses.

In the days leading up to the family’s trip to Nogales, Amazon trucks filled with boxes were emptied at a legal document services provider Bravo Services, Janneth Cardenas’ business office on Tucson’s south side.

A delivery driver one day told her he felt like Santa when he stopped at her office.

Two weeks before the family drove the gifts to Nogales, her office’s storage room was so full of bikes and boxes, wrapped and unwrapped, that they spilled into the work area next to employee desks.

People unable to fulfill every request in a letter reached out to Janneth offering to contribute a gift or money.

Janneth would take to Facebook and her daughter to Instagram, posting videos of letters that needed a sponsor. They then asked for volunteers to help wrap the gifts and organize them in vehicles for the trip to Nogales.

On Tuesday morning, three days before Christmas, the family headed across the border.

Once at the distribution site, volunteers lined up the gifts ordered by number along an outdoor basketball court. As they organized the gifts, a line of people there to pick them up wrapped around the building and the gated courts.

About 25 volunteers also helped with distribution, working in pairs. One person stayed with the family while the other person went to the basketball court to get the gift corresponding to the child’s letter to Santa.

Families were asked to leave children at home and to have only one adult pick up gifts to reduce the crowd because of COVID-19, but some families had no choice but to bring the kids along.

“A Christmas miracle”

While packing the gifts in Tucson, Janneth noticed someone had donated an extra bike for the program. It was unclaimed, but she decided to bring it with her to Nogales in case someone needed it.

A boy and his younger brother stood in line waiting for their turn to claim their gifts. The older of the two brothers had asked for school supplies, and Janneth said she remembered her daughter making a last-minute trip to the store to buy some.

The boy’s letter was one of a few that sponsors were unable to fulfill. But with extra money the family raised, they sponsored the remaining letters and bought a backpack and stuffed it with school supplies for the boy.

When the boys got to the front of the line, the younger brother said he asked for a bike, and the older boy said he also asked for a bike.

Feeling conflicted and seeing the boy’s sad eyes when he realized he didn’t include a bike in his letter, she remembered she brought the extra bike and brought it out of the back to give to him.

Unable to contain his excitement, the boy ran through a crowd and into the basketball court area to get on the bike, she said.

“It touched my heart because I didn’t know why I needed to take that bike,” she said, “but when I gave him that bike I knew that bike was for him,” she said.

“It sounds like a miracle, like a Christmas miracle really,” she added.

The family was impressed at how generous sponsors were this year, keeping in mind some people may not be able to help as much as they’d like because of the financial strain many people are enduring during the pandemic.

One lady got a letter from a little girl who asked only for a blanket. The lady packed a box with 10 individually wrapped gifts for the girl.

“I can’t imagine that child’s joy to be able to open 10 gifts when all she wanted was just a blanket,” Janneth said. “That was impressive just to see people’s generosity.”

As she coordinated the program this year, she thought about how despite a difficult year with the pandemic, and with racial and political divide, the goal has always been about helping their neighbors near the border.

“At the end of the day, if you celebrate Christmas you believe in Christ. And if you believe in Christ, what he asks is that you love your neighbors and that’s what we’re trying to do with this program,” Janneth says. “It didn’t stop us from being able to do what we intended to do, no matter how hard things got in terms of the political divide and the pandemic.”


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