Do-Good Buddies

Three friends continue a 13-year Christmas tradition of cooking for the homeless at Santa Rita Park

For the past 13 years, Roy Aros has gotten together with his two closest friends to barbecue at Santa Rita Park on Christmas Day.

Anyone who happens to be at the park can join them. These buddies have dished out 300 to 700 meals at a time to people who are homeless or hungry.

When Aros was 5 years old, his mother asked him if it would be OK to have a small Christmas that year so they could help a family that had nothing.

"I said yes, but I didn't understand until I went to their house with my mom. It really opened my eyes, even if I was only 5," Aros says. "When we went to their house and saw the grown man crying and the kids going nuts, I got it."

That family altruism continued when his mom took him to volunteer at an Italian restaurant in the foothills that provided a five-course meal every Christmas Day for homeless men from the Primavera Men's Shelter.

When that restaurant closed, he joined his mom at the McDonald's in Nogales, Ariz., where the owner bused in kids in from the Mexican side and gave everyone a free meal. His mother ended up getting banned from the event because she kept putting money in some of the kids' pockets.

During the drive home, Aros says, he told his mom not to worry, because they could do something in Tucson to help people during the holidays, "something better."

For the first barbecue in the park, in 1998, Aros collected money from friends and family; rented a U-Haul, tables and chairs; and got two barbecue grills. They served hamburgers, hot dogs and homemade potato salad.

"We probably served 100 to 150 people, and it was the best day, probably the best Christmas I ever had," he says. "I felt like I finally did something that my friends and family could be proud of."

They ran out of food, so the next year, he made sure they had more. Aros and his friends cooked up 200 pounds of chicken breasts and 500 hamburgers.

"We rocked and rolled. Every year, we got better at getting more donations. Sometimes, 350 people show up, and some years, it's 700 people."

The number of volunteers also has increased, with 30 to 50 people now helping to serve food and give out jackets and sleeping bags, as well as toys for the kids.

"One guy will be there this year to fry up about 12 turkeys," Aros says.

Two of Aros' childhood friends have helped since the beginning: Chris Mautner and Trey Luglan. Mautner says he and Aros had been barbecuing together for years, and when Aros told him about his idea, "it just seemed like a cool thing to do for other people, and something we already like to do," Mautner says.

Those first years, it felt like friends doing a barbecue for their families, Mautner recalls. "It's become bigger, but it's still low-key, like a big family picnic."

Some of the volunteers are people who drove by the park on a past Christmas and wanted to find out what was going on. Family members and old high school friends also pitch in.

"We have a good system in place. Nothing comes up that seems insurmountable," Mautner says.

Aros says he considers Luglan to be his right-hand man, helping to collect donations from businesses, friends and family. The money is used to purchase food. The first couple of years, Luglan says, he and Aros paid for the food out of their own pockets. In the last couple of years, "it's been tough to get donations, because times are tough," he says. "But everyone still pulls it together."

Luglan says he and Aros, who both have young children, have thought about handing the duties over to friends, "but we just couldn't do it."

When they first started, Aros says, they got a permit to host the event at the park from the city Parks and Recreation Department.

Then, in 2009, the Pima County Health Department almost shut them down. They were required to follow the county's health code, which meant no more homemade foods—and that meant more expense, Aros says. They need to serve food from a tent; wear hairnets; keep coolers at a certain temperature; store food prior to the event in a restaurant walk-in refrigerator; and say hello to the county employee who shows up every year to ensure the rules are being followed.

The arrival of the Health Department coincided with the barbecue being featured on TV news for the first time.

"Before that, we were flying under the radar," he says. "Maybe it backfired on us."

Aros says there is no lack of reminders about why he needs to keep up the tradition.

"I had one guy show up. He was dressed nice and kept trying to give me $40, and I kept telling him no." Finally, the man explained to Aros that a few years back, he was going through hard times and ended up celebrating Christmas at the park with Aros and his friends.

"He said, 'I was homeless, and I was living under a bridge. I lost my family and had a bad drug problem, and I was contemplating suicide. You made my Christmas,'" Aros says. "He was back on his feet and pointed to his brand-new truck in the parking lot. He said, 'I am doing good, and I'll never forget you guys.'"

Some people say homeless people want to live on the streets. Aros says that might be true for some, but he thinks most of the people he meets at the park are suffering from mental illness, and "now, the crappy economy."

These days, Aros is teaching a new generation about helping others. Two years ago, when his son was 4, he got a football for Christmas and spent part of the barbecue playing with a boy who came to the park with his family.

Aros' son asked his dad if he could give his new ball to the kid he'd just met. "'I have more at home, and he doesn't have any,' he told me," Aros says.