Almost three decades ago, Santa acquired some new helpers for his annual sleigh ride across Arizona.
Marlene Klotz-Collins was one of them.
In 1986, she was a member of the Salvation Army’s Phoenix Advisory Board, doing what she does best: serving others. The previous year, the Army had displayed a few counter-top Christmas trees with gift tags in shops around town. A local radio station helped to spread the word about donating the listed gifts to needy children. But the event was fairly small and needed someone to make it as big as the Valley itself.
Someone like Klotz-Collins.
She and her colleagues loved the idea of bringing Christmas joy to needy children. They wanted to expand the concept to serve a much larger audience but knew it would require savvy marketing skills—something Klotz-Collins possessed.
“I had just become the director of community relations for KTVK 3TV,” she recalls. She pitched the idea, initially called “Secret Santa,” to her management team, which “wholeheartedly embraced the program.”
The program, later renamed Christmas Angels, kicked off at what is now Christown Spectrum Mall in Phoenix. With “the powerful impact of daily television news and promotion behind us,” Klotz-Collins says, the Salvation Army rallied the community to provide gifts for 3,200 children whose wishes were written on tags hung on trees. The following year, more malls joined the program.
“Within a few years, we had reached a dozen malls,” says Klotz-Collins. “Looking back, it seems like it didn’t take long before we were helping 50,000 Valley children every holiday season.”
Each October, children up to age 12 sign up as Angels through their school or register at Salvation Army units throughout the Valley. Each Angel receives two toys and the family gets a food box or voucher. Last year, the program served more than 52,000 kids from 12,000 Arizona families.
Klotz-Collins is proud of the Salvation Army Christmas Angels program, but she is quick to give credit to those who work with her: “The Salvation Army is the catalyst for the program but it could not survive without a community that responds…throughout the season.”
Donors can choose a tag from a tree, purchase the gift listed and return it to the Christmas Angel booth in the mall. Corporations and groups can host a tree and display it in their place of business. With 5,000 volunteers working each season, there are plenty of opportunities to serve, from staffing booths at the mall to distributing toys. For many Valley families, it has become a tradition to serve together.
As Klotz-Collins was working in the Army’s warehouse one evening, she received a memorable phone call from a teenager. The girl had moved to Arizona from South Africa the previous holiday season.
“That first Christmas in the States, she took empty butter tubs, put a slit in the tops and labeled them ADAD (a dime a day). She gave one each to her parents at Christmas, challenging them to save a dime a day for the coming year so they could go out as a family and shop for kids that holiday season.”
Experiences like this are common, Klotz-Collins says, because the Christmas Angels program changes the lives of both those who give and receive.
“We have wonderful donors taking an angel tag off the tree and sharing their heart and resources to give a child a Christmas morning. Then we have the child who finds new toys under a tree that might otherwise be bare.”
As the program grows, it serves more Arizona children and families each year. And with helpers like Klotz-Collins, Santa’s job doesn’t seem so overwhelming after all.
Angel booth sites
San Tan Village
Scottsdale Fashion Square
A place in history
This year, Marlene Klotz-Collins was honored with entry into The Salvation Army’s Order of Distinguished Auxiliary Service, the highest honor given to a supporter. Fewer than 100 Americans have received the honor since its inception in 1941. Other Arizona honorees include Sandra Day O’Connor and Kax Herberger. Klotz-Collins has been a member of the Phoenix Advisory Board for 30 years and the National Advisory Board for 15 years.