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December 22, 2009 3:44 am

Sixty years and counting

Written by Tribune Staff

Surprise party honors leader of Christmas Basket program

Harry Truman was the president, the interstate highway system hadn't even been proposed yet, and laptop computers and space exploration still were the stuff of science fiction when Sally Montoya began her efforts to help needy people in Powell through the Christmas Basket program.

Last week, dozens of people who have joined her efforts over the years interrupted her preparations for the annual Christmas Basket giveaway to honor her for 60 years of providing free clothing, household needs and toys for local families who need them.

The party also honored Bob Kolb of Food Basket IGA for supporting that effort for 60 years. Kolb, however, was unable to attend due to an illness in his family.

“Sally's slaves,” as her volunteers cheerfully call themselves, turned their slave driver into “Queen for a Day,” giving her a throne to sit on and showering her with gifts, including a stuffed elephant to add to her collection, which, according Montoya, brought her collection to 865 elephants.

Other gifts were a one-of-a-kind calendar produced by PHS student Adam Spencer honoring “Sally's Shoe Boutique,” with photos of shoes taken from a massive pile of footwear collected for the Christmas Basket program, and a booklet, “Sally the Slave Driver,” a tongue-in-cheek history of Sally's work written and illustrated by Neva Slaght, Montoya's longtime assistant.

Under Montoya's leadership, the annual Christmas Basket program provides boxes of food and toys to families during the Christmas holidays. The day after the baskets are distributed, Montoya and her volunteers open and operate a “department store” at the Park County Fairgrounds, where donated clothes and household goods are available at no charge.

Montoya was one of the organizers of the Christmas Basket Program when it began 60 years ago, and later organized the Powell Council of Community Services, which now oversees the program.

Preparing for the Christmas effort is a yearlong undertaking. According to her volunteers, Montoya spends countless hours sorting and organizing donated items, which come from many sources and may come in at any time. Clothes, toys, furniture and used appliances fill storage sites all over Powell, including Montoya's own garage and a storage unit she pays for out of her own pocket.

Montoya may learn of a family in need of a bed or a washing machine at any time of the year. When she does, she calls on her volunteer slaves for help with locating and delivering the item.

Ruth Carroll, who calls herself “a longtime slave,” said Montoya has been a blessing to the Powell community.

“Sally is so amazing with what she's done for this town,” Carroll said. “She asks nothing for herself, just for people who need help.”

Slaght said she has been preparing to take Montoya's place for several years, but it doesn't appear that Montoya is ready to slow down yet. Asked if she was retiring, Montoya answered without hesitation.

“I'm not retiring,” she said shaking her head.

Her slaves aren't ready to quit yet either, according to Slaght.

“If she can keep going, I can keep going,” Slaght said.