POWELL, Wyo. — If you don’t believe in Santa, you haven’t met Sally Montoya.
At age 87, Montoya’s house is filled with toys. Around Powell she has several “workshops” stuffed with more. And she has about two dozen elves. (They might prefer to be called volunteers.)
Dressed in red and sporting a huge smile that lights up a room, Montoya looked back at the past 68 years of making sure those in need have a friend in Powell. During the holiday season, her calendar is full. From now until Christmas Eve she’ll go to one of her workshops seven days a week to make sure that everyone has a wonderful Christmas. She has her parents to thank for such a giving spirit.
“They encouraged us to be the best citizens we could be,” Montoya said.
Montoya’s parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s. Her father worked as a farm laborer and while they didn’t have much, they were a proud family. Montoya has never left Powell except to go on a couple vacations.
Life hasn’t always been easy on Montoya. Her Mexican heritage meant she didn’t always receive equal treatment.
“When my brother and I were little, we had to sit in the back of the school bus,” she said. “We didn’t like that, but we did it.”
Then, while Montoya was in the second grade, an announcement was made at school that changed her life: She was free to choose her seat on the bus. She always raced to be the first on the bus.
“Our room was upstairs and I would race down the stairs. I wanted to be the first on the bus and I wanted to sit right next to the bus driver,” Montoya said.
She felt like she belonged, like she fit in. Her spirit, combined with the lessons from her parents, led her down a path to a lifetime of giving.
“I knew then when I grew up I’d be the best person I could be and help people,” she said.
Harold Wages, co-owner of H & S Construction and area coordinator for Toys for Tots, should think about growing a beard. He already has the broad smile to compete with Montoya for the title of Santa of Powell. The beard might put him over the edge. His motivation for his work with Toys for Tots for the better part of the past decade is simple: “God made us to serve him. You have to help. It’s not really a choice,” he said.
Wages gets to play Santa every year, especially to those that may have been late to the party. On Christmas Eve, he is often sneaking presents to parents in need to ensure their children will have gifts to open on Christmas — without giving away their secret. “Santa is real,” Wages said.
Montoya is a member of the Powell Council of Community Services along with Dave Blevins, chairman, and Jim Carlson, treasurer. The council gives away free Christmas baskets containing food for a Christmas dinner and toys for children of needy families.
Last year, 118 baskets were distributed to the needy. Toys collected are given to about 250 children, Wages said.
Montoya also runs Sally’s Boutique, a free clothing, furniture and appliances shop in the former One Stop Shoppe/Burger King building.
It takes many volunteers to bring the program together. Many make donations to the cause. Mike Bailey, owner of Bailey Oil Co., donated space in the former One Stop Shop/Burger King building to make room for Sally’s Boutique. Members of the American Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE) collect toys from across the Big Horn Basin. The Marine Corps program, Toys for Tots, places boxes in area businesses to collect toys. And area residents and organizations, including several churches, also provide assistance.
This year, Mr. D’s grocery store will pack the food for the gift baskets. The funding for the food is provided by the Community Services council. Milk and additional food items are also donated every Christmas by businesses and residents.
Several others help Montoya through the year to collect items for Sally’s Boutique.
“I have about 20 people on my list,” Montoya said.
Two years ago, Montoya fell while working to help a needy family and broke her hip. Since then she has been using a cane to get around. Although it has only slowed her down a little, volunteers are invaluable to her success. Through the year, volunteers will help collect merchandise and then, before the boutique opens, they set up the merchandise and help with distribution.
Donations are always welcome. And those with extra time are needed. The council also helps needy residents year round. Donations collected not only fund the Christmas baskets, but also help those who have fallen on hard times throughout the year. Those in special need can apply for assistance at the police department.
Blevins, who has been the chairman of the council for more than 30 years, says he doesn’t know what they would have done without Montoya. Blevins became involved in the charitable organization at a young age. His late father, Carlus Blevins, was the chairman of the council for many years and Blevins remembers making deliveries with his father during the Christmas season. Montoya was there.
Montoya began volunteering for the Christmas Basket program in 1949. It was a time when women had few options to work outside their homes. In the many years of knowing and working side-by-side with Montoya, Blevins has become one of her many fans. In 2012, Blevins nominated Montoya for the Jefferson Award, a national award for public service. Montoya was picked as one of the four finalists.
But she doesn’t do the work for awards or recognition, Blevins said.
“Sally has given a lifetime of unconditional care and love to those needing help,” Blevins wrote in the nomination. “We don’t know what we’d do without her. She’s our saint,” he said.
Information from: Powell (Wyo.) Tribune, http://www.powelltribune.com