Seven-year-old identical twins Ramon and Armando Castaneda spent Thursday morning having fun with their high school mentors at Chandler Fashion Center.
The first-graders from Kyrene de los Niños Elementary School in Guadalupe were two of 660 elementary students paired with an East Valley high school student for a morning of building stuffed bears, eating, meeting Santa and taking pictures.
In its third year, the Smiles of Christmas event has grown from 400 students and four high schools, to the mall getting involved and 12 high schools helping out.
The four original high schools — Chandler, Corona del Sol, St. Mary’s and Seton Catholic — joined student council and National Honor Society students from Hamilton, Basha, Valley Christian, McClintock, Mountain View, Gilbert, Higley and Queen Creek high schools. Each high school student brought $25 to spend.
Chandler High School seniors Erin Ballard and Katie Goeldner helped the Castaneda boys shop.
"It’s better this year. It’s more organized and a lot more fun," said Goeldner, 17, a National Honor Society and Interact service club member and varsity soccer player.
The event was organized by Tom Medrano, manager of the Dairy Queen Treat Center at the mall. Medrano grew up in south Phoenix and said he knows what it’s like not to have presents under the Christmas tree.
"I never went to a mall," said Medrano, a Chandler resident. "I hope this encourages them to stay in school and better themselves. I hope these kids will remember this and do the same for other people."
The day began with Santa Claus handing out toys.
Then it was off to the Build-a-Bear Workshop.
Ramon’s teacher Esther Santillan said her students counted down the days and minutes until they could go to the mall.