Santa arrived at the American Legion hall aboard a red Payson fire engine and amidst much applause and laughter from the children present on Dec. 15.
"Always remember, Santa Claus is in the heart," the jolly elf told the children before he sat down to hear their wishes.
A dozen families recommended by Legion members and 45 children, including ones from Payson Community Kids (PCK), celebrated Christmas with hot dogs, presents and food boxes.
"We just try to do something for the kids that is a little more personalized than a community party. In addition to their gift, each child gets a $25 gift card," Legion auxiliary member Cathy Alston said. She has been involved in Legion activities for at least 18 years and the children's party for 12.
"I think it is wonderful," Denise Balesteri said. She and her son Anthony were at the party for the first time.
Anthony, age 6, was not scared of Santa as he had been at malls in the past. He shyly nodded when asked if he liked his disc shooter.
Jay Jay, a Payson Community Kid (last names are not revealed in the program), could not wait more than two weeks to open her gift, a Cinderella purse, but cousins Gabriel and Bertha took their gifts home.
The Christmas party represents one way the Legion does not stand at parade rest, but gives to the community.
Members head to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Prescott three times a year for a chat with each patient and a delivery of coffee and cookies.
The Legion has partnered with the Shoofly Quilters to bring veterans hand-sewn wheelchair tote bags and lap blankets.
The Legion also collects items to ship to veterans overseas year-round.
The auxiliary raised $500 for helmet liners to absorb the shock of percussion grenades. A service officer also helps member and nonmember veterans with government paperwork.
The veterans' stories are what Alston said she has found most rewarding over the years.
"I wish I had kept a journal. I feel I am blessed having known all these veterans. Realizing the sacrifices they have had to make has been an eye-opener at times," Alston said.
Raymond "Bud" Warner served in the Army Air Corps. and has been a Legion member since 1947. (The past 23 years of that in Payson.)
"One thing I have enjoyed is the camaraderie and the many friends I have made," the 92-year-old said.
Programs for teens
The American Legion supports a national scholarship program to which high school seniors can apply.
For 2008, the auxiliary has planned a scholarship funded through its thrift store proceeds. Barbara Riggins gets credit for this idea, Alston said.
In cooperation with Payson High School, the Legion hopes to send four students to a program in Tucson during the summer of 2008, to learn about government and how it works, Alston said.
The Legion plans to sponsor three teens from the community with uniforms and lodging to attend a mini-law enforcement academy in conjunction with the sheriff's office.
Currently there are 624 members at the American Legion Post in Payson, plus 250 auxiliary members. Dues are $35 and $20 per year, respectively.
Sons of the Legion is another way people can join who have someone in their family who has been active in the military.
To contact the American Legion for membership or scholarship information, call (928) 474-6969. American Legion Tonto Rim Post 69 is located at 709 E. Highway 260.
The thrift store is downstairs from the Legion and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. Call (928) 474-1675.
For more information on the law enforcement academy contact Deputy Colt White at the Gila County Sheriff's Office, (928) 474-2208.
"It was fun to sit on Santa's lap," said Payson Community Kid, Logan, as he held his Dodge Charger remote car.
"It is really nice what the Legion does for all these kids," John Eden said as his nearly-3-year-old son Gabriel offered a bite of his cookie.
Legion member Bob Shaw paused as he carried food boxes to cars for people. "It's fun to recognize kids year after year," he said. Shaw has been helping with the toy/food drive for about seven years.
"I have never passed out presents before this year. It is the best job ever," three-year auxiliary member Debbie Paulk said.