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‘Persistent, but in a good way’

SANTA FE, N.M. — Karen Webb has spent more than half her life in Santa Fe. But it’s when people come up to her and share memories about how her work has had an impact that makes her feel like she truly belongs here.

As an organizer who has helped give back to Santa Fe kids for almost 40 years, Webb said those moments happen all the time.

Sometimes, she doesn’t know what to think when people start to say they remember her. “I think ‘What did I do? What did I do? Oh, my God,’ ” she said with a laugh. ” ‘Do I want to run or stay and hear this?’ ”

But the stories are good.

“A kid comes up to you, and they’re grown now with their own kid, and says, ‘I remember when you bought me my school uniform’; ‘I remember when I had nothing and you brought a toy to me and my sister,’ she said in an interview, her voice breaking with emotion. “That’s the get-up; that’s the promotion.”

The 47-year Santa Fe resident emphasized that “it’s cheap to be involved.”

Karen Webb (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“All it takes is a little bit of time,” said Webb, a familiar figure around town from her years of work as server and seating host for Santa Fe’s popular Plaza Cafe and Plaza Cafe Southside restaurants.

For almost 40 years, Webb has helped organize Santa Fe’s annual Wings for Hope Toy Run. This year’s run is Saturday.

Motorcycle riders will meet on the Plaza at 3:30 p.m. At 5 p.m., there will be a ride around town leading up to a 6 p.m. benefit event at the Fraternal Order of Eagles on Early Street, with food, prizes and music by Taos band Gonzalo.

Toys 4 Tots is a part of Santa Fe’s Wings for Hope nonprofit, an organization Webb helped co-found with the motorcyclists to help provide kids with new clothes, food and other services.

“I’m the last left survivor, in the way people get burnt out along the way,” said Webb. “There’s a few of us left, but I’m the longest term.”

Following this year’s Toy Run, Webb will step away from her official duties as a board member. But she still plans to be involved with the organization in some capacity.

“Sometimes, you have to turn the wing over,” she said. “And that’s just how it is, and let other people step up to the plate.”

Stepping aside

Webb is confident that she is leaving at a time when the organization is in good hands. Webb said that a new, motivated board of directors has taken over within the past year.

When explaining why this year would be her last, Webb, 66, mentioned her painful arthritis. She described her job at the Plaza Southside and spending time with the customers as “the best medicine.”

“This is (also) the best medicine,” she said of working with the nonprofit. “I will definitely help them out, but I can’t obligate myself at this point. And I don’t want to disappoint myself.”

The New Jersey native moved to Santa Fe in 1971. Thirty-eight years ago, she agreed to help members of Santa Fe’s motorcycle community organize the Toys 4 Tots toy drive.

“I don’t know why, but I’ve always been attracted to motorcycle gentleman in any state I’ve lived in,” said Webb.

Their efforts expanded in 1999 with the formation of Wings for Hope, after the Santa Fe Public School implemented uniform dress codes.

According to Webb, using referrals from elementary school staff like counselors or nurses, volunteers take kids shopping for winter shoes, underwear, socks, two school outfits and a winter coat. This year, the organization is on track to provide new outfits for eight kids from each of more than 20 local elementary schools, according to organization chairman Richard Martinez.

“I feel this helps them walk in with no judgement call,” Webb said of the students who benefit from the program. “They walk in like anybody else and they have something new on their back.”

Webb’s professional life has gained her a measure of fame. She has been holding forth at the Plaza Southside for the past seven years, greeting and seating customers, and worked at the downtown Plaza Cafe for 20 years before that.

She was featured in the 2002 documentary “American Waitress, New Mexico.” Her restaurant work led to a chance encounter with Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Patrick Oliphant.

“I didn’t know who he was,” she recalled. “Didn’t matter who he was; I treat everybody the same.” Oliphant then went home and drew Webb on his wall.

A drawing of Karen Webb by renowned editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant is featured on the cover of one of his books. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“People would come in and say you’re on this famous man’s wall. And I would say what room? And they would say the kitchen. (I would say) ‘Oh, the kitchen’s cool.’ ”

The cartoon, which Webb said captured her personality “totally,” was used as the cover of the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts’ “Oliphant in Santa Fe” book published in 2000.

Oliphant and his wife became regulars at both Plaza restaurants after that, said Webb. She even convinced him to draw her father a cartoon for his 90th birthday.

Nobody says no

Wings chairman Martinez, who has helped with the organization off and on since its foundation, said Webb is a “valuable asset” to the organization. He cited her relationships with all sorts of people and her eagerness to get them involved.

“She sells the program,” he said. “Persistent, but in a good way.”

According to Webb, her customers are the key. At the Plaza restaurants, she has established relationships with business types, like downtown gallery owners and jewelers, and others who have donated money, toys, and silent auction items and door prizes.

“I was trying to think about this last night, and I couldn’t come up with it; I couldn’t remember one person that said no to me,” said Webb. “Would you say no to me? No. And that’s how it started, and then people really, really got turned on by it and felt really good about being associated with it.”

Webb’s customers have also been vital in other side projects of hers, like gifting clothes to people or to a local homeless shelter. She says she would tell customers she was looking for kids’ coats and all of a sudden she had a trunkload. One person would bring her a pair of pants and eventually she had 100 pairs of jeans to give away.

Webb said she turns this into a game for herself of how fast she can give away all of the donated items.

Fighting back tears, she said she wanted to thank the locals who have helped her along the way with causes like Wings for Hope/Toys 4 Tots. She said they are the reason she has been able to give back to the community.

“It’s their generosity,” Webb said. “I’m just the middle person. It’s true. It’s like a miracle, over and over.”

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