It was three days before Christmas. Norma Saldana was frantically jotting notes and making calls from the Paiute Neighborhood Center as toys flew over her head. Around her, a small group of teenage volunteers was tossing loot into piles for kids from needy families.
Call it organized chaos at its finest.
"We didn’t think we’d have enough," Saldana said of toys. "The firemen called and said they had a lot. I can call people who said they have nothing for their kids and help make them have a good Christmas."
That’s something Saldana, director of the Scottsdale International Club, has done since founding the Hispanic youth dance performing and community services group, the International Dancers, in 1991.
The dance group spends its holidays entertaining people in hospitals, nursing homes and senior centers. To the performers, it’s a labor of love — a chance to do something meaningful, learn about dance and interact with people.
To the 41-year-old Saldana, who suffered a miscarriage in 1991, the group members — who range in age from 2 to 17 — are the children she never had.
"It started as a cooking group and evolved into dancing," said Saldana, director of the club and recreation leader at Paiute. "I have at least 70 to 150 kids in the dance group each year. When it comes to children, I have never really been alone."
Most of the children come from low-income families with roots in Mexico and South American countries. Saldana said the goal is to give the youths a sense of purpose, build self-esteem, respect for others, positive peer influence and keep them from drug and gang involvement.
The dancers move to salsa, ’50s, cha-cha, mambo and other forms of Hispanic and American music.
Miguel Estrada, a 15-yearold freshman at Arcadia High School, has been in the program for five years. He helps organize toys, shoes and clothing, and talks with younger group members about his experiences.
"What they do for kids and the people we entertain is special," Estrada said. "I get to help people. Some of my friends used to come here and told me how good the program is. It’s really wonderful to go to places and see people who can’t come to us. They get excited when we dance for them. You can see it in their faces and the smiles they have."
Frances Young, 84, of Scottsdale has seen the group perform for senior citizens many times.
"They bring energy and vitality, especially to people in nursing homes," Young said. "Some of the people in those homes never have visitors and really are happy when the kids come to dance for them."
Saldana said senior citizens in wheelchairs are usually touched by the performances. The children don’t just perform, they get their audience into the act. Even in wheelchairs, patients are whisked onto the stage to "dance" with the kids.
"We see the tears in their eyes and the happiness as they dance with the children," Saldana said. "We believe what we do really helps their lives. They seem to feel the energy and we’ve been told that some of them feel better after interacting with our group. It’s like a miracle sometimes."