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Pandas donated to local Rotary Christmas gift project

We all have collected something at some point in our lives. Maybe it started with a simple coin collection. A great number of our population collects stuffed animals of a sort. What happens when that collection becomes too big to “collect?”

That was the situation for Pagosa resident Wen Saunders. Her collection? Panda bears! It started back in 1980 when she visited the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., with one stuffed panda. The zoo’s live pandas were simply amazing, claims Saunders. Those pandas, like all panda bears, are on loan to zoos, including the United States, from China (their homeland). Pandas are endangered, as they rarely reproduce and survive in captivity.

“I remember watching the unique pandas and swore they were actually humans in costume to attract attention as they had such personality,” said Saunders. That was the start of her collection. Over 20 years later, she ended up with over 70 stuffed pandas, not to mention the ceramic “panda collection.” In Boulder, she had a guest room dedicated to pandas!

When she moved to Pagosa in 2005, she downsized to a smaller house and had stored the stuffed pandas in large clear plastic bags in the master closet.

“Each year at Christmas, I thought I would donate the collection to a toy drive so each panda could find a nice home, but just never found the right project to do so, until now,” remarked Saunders.

Saunders was excited about the Rotary Club’s goal of collecting over 300 games for Christmas food boxes through a recent article published in The SUN. She began to think what a wonderful gift it would be for the “younger” children to receive a panda along with their game. She phoned Jann Pitcher, one of the Rotarians with a collection location. Pitcher has been a Rotary member for over 30 years.

“I must admit, I felt a little strange saying I’d like to donate over 70 panda bears to the project. After all, they were requesting games, and then they would know of my secret collection.” Saunders said. “Jann was so gracious in accepting the addition of the pandas to their project, as Christmas is always such a renewal of the human spirit.”

Saunders drove through town with the panda bears in her Nissan X-Terra, a funny sight if anyone looked closely, each panda from little to large, each panda having personality, just as the live pandas she remembered at the zoo. “I watched my speed while driving, as this would really be an interesting traffic stop,” joked Saunders.

The pandas arrived at their destination to meet Pitcher and Joe Donavan (another committee member). They were surprised at the pristine look of each panda. Saunders admitted she stashed about six and the count was down to 70 and they needed to wrap them, now!

“The Pagosa Springs community has jumped in with both feet, but I am not surprised,” said Pitcher, Rotary committee chairperson for the project. The game project committee members include Pitcher, Donavan, Jane Lomasney and Rev. Doug Neal. Pitcher approached Rotary to take on the “game” project when she found that only food boxes would be available to the needy this year. The Community United Methodist Church is working in concert with the Salvation Army to prepare the food boxes. Members of the 4-H clubs have volunteered to wrap the games, and now pandas.

“Christmas can be experienced and enjoyed by all of our less fortunate neighbors with a family Christmas meal and quality time playing family board games with a few pandas along for the fun,” said Pitcher. The meals, games and pandas will be distributed to families on Dec. 18.

Additional board games are greatly appreciated and can be dropped at either branch of Citizens Bank or at the Jann Pitcher Real Estate office.

Cash donations are also accepted to purchase games. Suggested games include Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, Monopoly, Pickup Sticks, Chinese Checkers, Yahtzee, Scrabble, Sorry and the various –opoly games available at the Humane Society Thrift Store. All items and cash donations will be accepted until Dec. 15. For additional information, call Jann Pitcher, 749-4904, or Joe Donavan, 731-9296.