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Selfless angels among us light the way

John Piasecki, 83, has been volunteering at the Giving Tree at Coronado Center for 20 years. He often works 12-hour days seven days a week from Black Friday until Christmas Eve. “It’s a good life doing this,” he says. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Oh, the year we’ve had.

Again and again, many of you have remarked about how rancorous and ugly this year has been. “Why does everyone seem so mean?” some of you ask. “Where has our civility and kindness gone?”

But consider this: No matter how dark and sad things have been this year, if you looked, you could still find the good people quietly going about the business of doing good things in our community. You could still find the angels among us.

And so, we honor three of those good people in our ninth annual Angels Among Us, selected from among the nominations you readers submitted. Two are good friends whose grassroots effort to raise up women in need began over a hurricane and a haircut; the other is about as close to Santa Claus as you can get.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Let the spirit of these angels light the way.

The Giving man

If you’ve taken your little ones to visit Santa Claus at Coronado Center in the last decade or two, chances are your photo of the holiday ritual may have been inadvertently photobombed by the guy who really makes sure the children across the city find a present or two under their tree.

He wears no red suit, dons no beard, though his hair is the requisite white. He uses no sleigh or reindeer or elf. But the gifts, thousands of them each year, reach their destinations just the same because of the hours of volunteer work he does.

Lots of hours.

Every year, John Piasecki mans the Giving Tree, where shoppers pick a tag from its branches with the name of a child in need. They return with a gift as suggested on the tag to be delivered to that child by Christmas.

Piasecki has been the one to hand out tags, receive the gifts, sort and store and safeguard them before they are sent off to the children.

Tags on the Giving Tree include the first name, age, clothing size and wish for a Christmas present. (Courtesy of Jane Bickelman)

He has been there every year, every day, his watch beginning on Black Friday and ending Christmas Eve. He shows up before most stores in the mall open and remains at his post at a table near the tree until the stores close – or whenever his wife, Patty, wants him home.

And he has done that for 20 years.

“It’s crazy,” his wife said. “He’s 83. He loves it. It’s not a chore when you love it.”

It was Patty, John Piasecki said, who volunteered him in 1996 for the Giving Tree gig.

“She just wanted to get me out of the house,” he joked, his blue eyes twinkling.

It’s true, though. Piasecki had already retired from the Air Force, then the private sector. Their two daughters were grown. Hanging around house was not as useful as hanging around happy people giving gifts to disadvantaged children.

“If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I didn’t think it would last this long. I just couldn’t give it up.”

He loves it so much that he returns every year from Arizona where he and his wife spend their winters just to volunteer at the tree. The Piaseckis head back to Arizona the day after Christmas.

Anna Duran, who coordinates the Giving Tree project, said Piasecki is the man she counts on each year.

Other volunteers work a shift or two during the season. Some fail to show up at all. But Piasecki is always there. And so she knows the Giving Tree is always in good hands.

“He is so dedicated,” she said. “He is really the heart and soul of our Giving Tree. He is the Giving Tree.”

But not for much longer.

This year will be his last.

He and his wife plan to travel more, he said.

But he hardly sounds convincing.

“I’d do this for another 20 years if I could,” he said. “I’m sure going to miss this.”

He repeats that several times as we sat at the Giving Tree table, located to the left of the golden throne where Santa holds court.

Oh, and about the photobombing. Duran said that for years the Giving Tree table was located just behind Santa’s throne, within camera shot. In many of the photos taken of Santa with a child on his lap, Piasecki can be seen in the background.

All things considered, that seems a perfect placement.

About 2,000 children across the city will receive the gifts donated by kind strangers. As Piasecki and I talked, a steady stream of people dropped off their donated gifts. Piasecki thanks every one of them and shakes their hands.

“They call me Santa sometimes,” he chuckled. “It’s a good life doing this.”

He likes to imagine the children who will receive these Christmas presents, he said. He imagines their smiles, their joy. And maybe he remembers what it was like when Christmas presents were rarities for a child growing up in Scranton, Pa., as one of 10 children born to a mother who worked in a factory and a father who worked in the mines. There were no Giving Trees back in those days, he said.

Maybe that’s why he has stayed here so long.

“I’m sure going to miss this,” he said again. “I sure am.”

In the bag

You can tell a lot about a woman by her purse and what’s inside, the crucial freight and flotsam of her daily upkeep bundled and trundled neatly (or not nearly so) in bags of all make, model and price range. Pack a good purse, and you can live out of it for days.

Jane Bickelman, left, gets a hug from Sara Sanchez, her hairstylist, friend and partner in their charitable endeavor, Pursonalities Plus, which collects high-end purses, fills them with toiletries and goodies and donates them to 19 local women-centered agencies. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Sometimes you have to.

So thought Sara Sanchez, a longtime Albuquerque hairstylist who last year was moved to help the victims of a hurricane in Florida, inspired by the efforts of her niece, who lives there.

Sanchez had a half-dozen purses or so and thought maybe they could be of use to Floridians who had lost everything in the storm.

Her niece surprised her with her response.

Auntie, the niece told her, Florida will be just fine. But where you live in Albuquerque there is much need, too. Why not donate the purses locally?

“She was right,” said Sanchez, who owns Sara’s Hair Studio on Candelaria near Eubank NE. “There is so much to be done in Albuquerque.”

But how? Sanchez said she didn’t want to just donate the purses to a charitable second-hand shop, where they could be picked over and paid for. She wanted them to go to women in need, in crisis or in the process of changing their lives.

Already, she was thinking outside the bag, imagining something bigger involving dozens and dozens of purses donated by her generous clientele and business owners and filled with goodies and feminine necessities like tissues, lipstick and hairbrushes.

“Purses are tangible items,” she said.

She knew just whom to call.

Jane Bickelman, Sanchez’s client since 1986 and a friend almost as long, had garnered a lot of contacts over her years as a banker and an engaged community member.

“I told her, ‘I need you,’ ” she said. “I need your help.”

Bickelman didn’t hesitate.

Hundreds of purses are cleaned, sorted, packed with toiletries and goodies. (Courtesy of Sara Sanchez)

“OK,” she told Sanchez. “I’ll get to work.”

Bickelman’s daughter came up with the name Pursonalities Plus, the “plus” allowing for them to expand their charitable giving beyond handbags should they so choose.

They began their push for purses in mid-November 2016 with the goal of distributing packed purses by that Christmas to several charitable causes. Sanchez began talking to her clients. Bickelman began talking to everybody else.

Both women said they prayed for 50 purses.

They got 187.

This year, they prayed for 450 purses. They got 1,038.

“I started to think, what have we gotten into?” Bickelman chuckled. “But we knew: God was in control.”

God, however, had help. This year, Sanchez and Bickelman enlisted several Albuquerque boutiques like Gee Loretta!, Silk Road Connection and A Touch of Zen to help gather donated purses.

They selected nearly 20 women-centered agencies, including Barrett House, Haven House, Haley’s Haven, Women’s Housing Coalition, A Peaceful Habitation, Enlace Comunitario and Silver Horizons to gift the purses to. For many of the women, the purses – most of them high-end bags from brands like Dooney and Bourke, Michael Kors and Brighton – are the nicest possessions they have.

“It’s been a great ride,” Bickelman said. “I’ll tell you, you think you’re helping others, blessing others, but you end up being blessed.”

The women say they plan to collect purses every year for Christmas distribution. They’ve not yet started praying on how many purses they hope to collect in 2018, but they are praying to learn of more charitable causes to add to their list.

And since the project has now outgrown both Sanchez’s storage area at her salon and her sister’s garage, they are praying for warehouse space where they can store, sort, pack and prepare the purses.

You can imagine how big that space is bound to be.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.