It was less than a week before Christmas, and all across Arizona, temperatures were in the mid 70s. American Legion Riders of District 12 were stirring once again, under a sunny Phoenix sky, to collect and deliver gifts at the State Veteran Home in an annual program affected, but by no means canceled, by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the morning of Dec. 20, American Legion Riders from the district delivered more than 100 donated gifts to the Arizona long-term care facility in a program called Christmas Stars. The gifts were purchased based on the wishes of each veteran at the home.
For the past four years, Dixie Becker, secretary of American Legion Riders Chapter 27 in Apache Junction, Ariz., has been running the program with the intention that every veteran at the home gets a gift.
"We have gathered a list of the wishes of every patient at the Phoenix VA home, and we put out stars on the trees because veterans are our true stars,” she explained. Donors adopt stars and fulfill the wishes of the veterans and return the gifts for the Riders to deliver.
Dixie’s husband, Jerry Becker, serves as the "D12" representative for the Riders and helped coordinate the operation. “My mission as a Rider is to work for our vets and our community and have a good time doing it, through camaraderie with Riders and veterans," he said.
Riders from around the district converged on Post 41 in Phoenix, the official rally point prior to the parade to deliver the gifts. Kickstands were up a little after 1 p.m., and the Riders made their way to the facility where, in a normal year, they would line their bikes up outside the main entrance so that the resident veterans could come down and see them. But due to current safety concerns about COVID-19, they wouldn’t get that opportunity this year.
Regardless, Dixie wanted the veterans to know the Riders were there for them. “We’re going to make them a noise parade,” she said. And they did, roaring through the campus for the gift-giving procession.
In past years, the Riders were also able to personally hand-deliver gifts to patients. This year, the Riders unloaded them outside the main entrance where staff took over the delivery step in Christmas Stars. "We usually get to go in and deliver these presents to the veterans in person, and it’s something that just changes you forever,” Jerry Becker explained.
Kayla Taft, therapeutic program manager at the home, was there to greet the riders and receive the gifts. She spoke of the impact the program has on the veterans, many of whom have been isolated from family members for most of the year. “A lot of them don’t have family," she said. "Especially this year, family hasn’t been able to visit them in nine months. So, just knowing that there are people out there that care about them and they are not forgotten and appreciate what they did for our country. They absolutely love it. They look forward to it every year.”