By Zach Alvira, GSN Sports Editor
Football season may be over in the East Valley, but members of the Gilbert High football team have not suddenly dropped their spirit and drive for accomplishment.
Players recently set up Christmas trees and spread seasonal joy to residents of the American Orchard Senior Community.
“We ask our community to support us, so this is an opportunity for us to support them,” Gilbert football coach Derek Zellner said. “Christmas is the time of giving, so we want to go give to them.”
It’s the second year that the team dedicated an afternoon to the senior citizens in the home. It was arranged with the help of Chrissy Hall, executive director of American Orchards. Her son, Zach, is a sophomore in the Gilbert football program.
Hall says that the facility’s residents enjoy the time with the players while they set up the trees. It’s common for them to joke with the boys, and even boss them around a little if they think they aren’t setting up the tree correctly.
Hall believes that the interaction is mutually beneficial to the players and the residents.
“They really enjoy having the kids come in and talk to them and share stories,” Hall said. “The players listen to the seniors. To see the smiles on their faces, it’s priceless.
“It’s pretty cool to see them develop relationships.”
For some of the players, coming into a facility like American Orchards is unfamiliar territory. Hall said the players are shy at first but warm up as the seniors start speaking with them.
Silence turns to laughter and joy.
“We were putting up one of the trees in one of the rooms and some of the elders sat down and enjoyed watching us put it up,” said Anthony Yanez, a sophomore defensive back and receiver for the Tigers.
“We could tell they were enjoying themselves, and it feels good knowing they were enjoying what we were doing.”
The impact that the Gilbert players made on the senior citizens is greater than what they could have imagined, especially when taking into consideration that many in the home don’t often spend as much time with family as they would like.
American Orchards helps seniors in many ways, from those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia to others who need 24-hour care. The facility aims to provide a place for those to feel at home in an unfamiliar environment.
And with the help of the Gilbert football players, they have been able to take that one step farther the past two years.
“I feel like we are making a difference,” said Wyatt Zellner, sophomore quarterback and tight end. “Even something as small as putting up Christmas trees can go a long way. They seem to really enjoy it.”
Wyatt, who is the son of the coach, finds joy in spending time with the residents. It also gives him a chance to bond with teammates for a good cause.
Not every Gilbert football player made it because some are involved in winter sports or after-school activities. For those who were there, dedicating part of their afternoon to give back to the community was rewarding and heartwarming.
“Whoever can get over here and help, it’s great,” Derek Zellner said. “Some have transportation issues, but if we only have five kids then at least it’s more than just me.
“The ladies and gentlemen love having us and as long as I am the coach this will be a traditional thing we do every year.”