A helicopter landed last year to open Transportation Day at God's Garden Preschool in Ahwatukee

In February 2000, a group of parents at God’s Garden Preschool of Ahwatukee took it upon themselves to host a Transportation Day for area youngsters and their families.

Little did they know that inviting a few police cars, school and city buses and the local Phoenix Fire Department Station 46 fire truck would evolve into a much-anticipated and well-attended annual event for the preschool, located on the grounds of Horizon Presbyterian Church.

The 17th annual Transportation Day may prove to be the highest-attendance yet, and Michelle Rhodes, God’s Garden Preschool Director and this year’s coordinator has plans to better measure the throngs that come at 9 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, for the Air Evac Services helicopter landing.

Many likely will stay through 1 p.m. closing time to view more than 40 various vehicles of assorted sizes as well as four-footed friends – after all, horses are transportation, too.

“We’ve known we had thousands on the grounds but this year we’ve got clickers at the entrances to get a more accurate count,” said Rhodes, who is in her second year as God’s Garden Preschool director.

After years of bumper-to-bumper parking along an already-busy Liberty Lane, the school is again providing off-site parking and a shuttle service.

This year the Kyrene School district is donating a school bus to ferry families from the Kyrene de la Sierra Elementary School parking lot at 1122 E. Liberty Lane, to the church property at 1401 E. Liberty Lane.

One of the highlights of a day of delights for children is the 9 a.m. landing of the Air Evac Services helicopter on the west side of the church.

Piloted for five years by Ahwatukee resident and pilot Tom Cotharin, this year the AS 350 helicopter will be in the hands of pilot and AES base manager Joey Martin.

He will then assist curious children in and out of the big yellow bird, providing photo ops for parents and their wee participants.

“I’m no longer actively flying, I’m area manager now, but Air Evac Services continues to support this event. This will be our eighth or ninth year,” said Cotharin. “We are part of the EMS community, and this is one way to show our appreciation of our friends and neighbors.”

 First-comers are also able to snag Transportation Day “loot bags” filled with kiddie trinkets and give-aways from participating businesses.

 Last year’s quantity of 700 ran out quickly, so 300 more are being assembled this year.

A new option this year is the addition of food trucks slated to arrive after the helicopter lifts off.

Among the seven slated to feed the masses are Gilbert’s Waffle Love and Mesa’s SuperFarm Super Truck.The other vendors will include Sweet Magnolia Smokehouse, Mustache Pretzels, DK Dogs, Burgers Amore, Phoenix Phreeze Hawaiian shaved ice, and Yoasis frozen yogurt.

But without a doubt, the 40-plus vehicles are the big draw, giving  the opportunity for children to climb inside and outside construction equipment, police cars and military trucks.  

Also spread across the lot are UPS trucks, a Valley Metro bus, boats, local ambulances, various machinery, military vehicles, motorcycles, antique cars and even an older form of transportation - horses.

Sometime during the four hours, a squadron of vintage biplanes fly over the grounds. In the past, the fly-over has consistently elicited loud oohs and ahhs from the crowd.

An $8 wristband is the key to fun in the play zone that includes bounce toys, a petting zoo, and carnival games. This year, pony rides and train rides also will be available for an additional cost.

And indoors in the church social room, parents and grandparents wearied by the noise and sun can purchase raffle tickets for scores of themed baskets of goodies.

Over the years, this part of the fundraiser has been the most successful money-wise. Baskets include get-away vacations, high-end toys for kids and adults, autographed sports equipment and more.

There are also specialty boutique vendors indoors and out,  including the newcomers – Scripture Shadows, owned and operated by Ahwatukee moms Nicole Koester and Leanna Hunsaker and The Balloon Cowboy.

Live entertainment is ongoing throughout the event, for which Freeway Chevrolet is the main sponsor.

As it began 17 years ago, Transportation Day is the result of dedicated parent volunteers and staff at the preschool and church.

“It’s so rewarding to do this. My kids are eight and 11 and still love coming to Transportation Day,” said Rhodes, who holds a Ph.D. in early childhood education, a master’s in child development and a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

“We have parents who work hard to make this day a success.”

With more than 12 years experience in early childhood education – including teaching at Arizona State University and community colleges – she said her position as preschool director is fulfilling professionally, and also allows her time with her own family.

“I love what I do,” she said. “What I like about working here is our families come here for preschool, they don’t come for childcare.  And there’s such a wonderful community feeling, At God’s Garden Preschool, family is truly number one and that includes mine.”

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