Longtime champion for students, families in need is honored

Palmer was nominated by her friend, Joanne Whitcomb, who described Palmer as a compassionate woman who helps students and families in need.

"What she does is she kind of gives those of us who sit back an opportunity to contribute because she'll organize and get everybody together and take the lead in getting things done," Whitcomb said.

Palmer acknowledges her talent for recruiting volunteers from her Oro Valley community.

"I round up anybody on the street. We have a wonderful neighborhood in Vistoso and friends that are supportive," she said. "This is just me and my husband rounding up everyone we know and encouraging and motivating and intimidating, if need be. Some people need a little boost to give back. I guess that's where I come in."

Earlier this month, Palmer hosted her fourth annual Backpack BBQ. It is an event she started in her home as a community service project for fellow members of the Southern Arizona Corvette Club. It now has grown so large they gather at a local restaurant.

Palmer invites family, friends and neighbors to share a meal and bring donations for students -- including backpacks, clothing and school supplies.

"We just thought they needed to do something besides get together and eat," Palmer said of the car club enthusiasts. "Most of them are grandparents and don't have any children at home and really had a great time shopping for school supplies for probably the first time in 20 to 30 years."

At the first Backpack BBQ in 2006, the group provided supplies for 30 students at Van Buskirk Elementary School in Tucson. A year later, they stuffed 70 backpacks for students at Desert Winds Elementary in Marana. Last year, the group donated 175 backpacks to Roadrunner Elementary in Marana and gave supplies to a special-education classroom at Cross Middle School in the Amphitheater district. In 2007, they began donating extra supplies, plus clothing.

The recipients of this year's 143 backpacks are students at Coronado K-8 School in Catalina and the special-education class at Cross Middle School. Palmer, who was belled in the middle school's lobby, also gifted the teacher with classroom necessities, including tissues, paper towels and hand sanitizer, and grocery cards to teach the students shopping skills and movie passes for outings.

"Bless the teachers' hearts, if they can't use it or if their children have enough, they just pass them around the school," Palmer said.

At the Backpack BBQs, Palmer raffles and auctions off restaurant certificates and other donations, then uses the proceeds as seed money for next year's supplies and to buy extras for the schools. This year, she bought graphing calculators and tri- fold presentation boards for math and science students at Coronado.

"Pat is always on the lookout for school supplies throughout the year," Whitcomb wrote in her nomination. "Many of her donors are following her lead and doing the same thing."

Palmer even shops for bargains while vacationing with her husband in their recreational vehicle. In addition to school supplies, she hunts for items to put into gift baskets she makes as birthday gifts for girls in the foster system and for teen mothers, Whitcomb said.

Palmer knows what teens need. She is the mother of two children, and she and her husband, Ron, were foster parents to 22 teens and opened their home to 34 foreign-exchange students over the years.

She was a volunteer bailiff in the juvenile court when she first realized the need for foster homes and began taking in teens. She was gratified recently when one of her foster daughters, now grown and moved out, called to thank Palmer for introducing her to community service. "It's just been a life full of children, kids at home for 46 years," said Palmer, whose mother also took in children and helped families in need.

Once the school supplies are distributed, Palmer organizes the holiday adopt-a-family program for the nonprofit Aviva Children's Services in Tucson, doing the shopping and wrapping for companies and groups that want to contribute money to provide Christmas gifts for children in need.

"We couldn't do it alone. The support is from the community," Palmer said. "It's something that doesn't cost a lot of money. For $25, you can fill a backpack with school supplies that will really make a difference."

The project

The Ben's Bells Project began in March 2003, one year after Ben Mare Packard died of croup, just before his third birthday. His family hopes it reminds people to be kind, to help ease one another's pain. The latest phase of the project began in September 2005, weekly "bellings" for those among us who make our community a better, kinder place to live.

If you know people who deserve a bell, go to www.bensbells.org/Nominate.html to nominate them. To learn more about the project, and find out how you can make bells, go to www.bensbells.org or call 628-2829.

Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or at 573-4191.

Credit: The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

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