On Saturday, the delectable smell of tamales wafted out of Gerardo’s Firewood Café as out front the Payson Fire Department raised the tall ladder from its hook and ladder truck to add flare to a great-hearted Rim Country tradition.
Inside, firefighters lined up in their blue shirts and pressed pants to show attendees to seats and clean up plates, while a steady line of people waited to grab either a delicious lunch of tamales, beans, chips and salsa or to pick up a dozen corn husk wrapped treats to take home.
For the past 24 years, Rim Country residents have flocked to eat the rolled tamales prepared by local volunteer chefs to benefit needy children for this uniquely Payson event.
Fire Chief Marty deMasi knows the whole history. “Silvia Smith, the town clerk, started this informal thing at her house about 15 years ago,” said deMasi, “It was — bring a toy and get a tamale.”
Nine years ago, deMasi heard that Smith had to stop doing the event. He decided the tradition had to continue, so he brought it to the attention of the Northern Gila County Public Safety (DPS) group, which holds events throughout the year for underprivileged youth.
This year, the event almost disappeared, because the DPS group needed a break, but the Payson firefighters refused to let it slip by.
“I was talking to the firefighters and when they heard it wouldn’t happen they said, ‘We want to do it anyway,’” said deMasi.
But the firefighters did not have a connection to local kids in need.
Enter Payson Community Kids.
“Gerardo told me to call them,” said deMasi.
“He told me to contact the Payson Fire Department at about the same time,” said Suzy Tubbs, executive director of the PCK program.
A match was made in heaven.
Due to budget cuts, Tubbs wondered how her organization could throw its annual Christmas party. PCK each year provides gifts, food and clothing to the 144 children and their siblings on its roster. “Some of our kids have three siblings,” said Tubbs.
The combining of the firefighters and PCK made powerful magic.
“We made more money than the event ever has,” said deMasi.
The event relied on donations of time, supplies and money from the generous Rim Country businesses and individuals who spent hours behind the scenes putting all the food together — such as Gerardo’s Firewood Café, Mazatzal Casino, The Rim Club, Aliberto’s, Misfitz 260 Café, El Rancho, Fargo’s, Alfonso’s, La Sierra, and Chema’s restaurants, Printing by George, Bashas’, Semstream Propane, Mazatzal Optimist, Payson Police Department, Northern Gila County Firefighter Association #4135, Jacque Lee, Albert Hunt, Northern Gila County Emergency Resource Team (CERT), and the Payson Fire Department.
Rim Country residents donated $3,600 and more than $2,000 in toys. deMasi said, a total that could increase in coming weeks.
“I just got a call from Bill Sahno of the Marine Corps Detachment,” said deMasi. “They do some (fund-raising) efforts and would like to contribute.”
Outside the restaurant, Payson Community Kids board member Lori Mills sat with volunteers wrapping toys as quickly as they could from a U-Haul two-thirds full.
“We have so much more to do,” she said looking wistfully at the stash, “but, oh my gosh, some people just brought tons of toys and didn’t even want to eat.”
Tubbs said that in order to prepare for the Saturday, Dec. 15 Christmas party, volunteers will wrap on Monday, Dec. 10. The organization would appreciate help from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. If you would like to help, call executive assistant, (and former PCK child and now college student), Pearla Guereque at (928) 951-3653.