Randy Heiss was never looking for attention, he said, but after stumbling across a Mexican girl’s Christmas list last December, the Patagonia resident found himself at the center of a feel-good holiday story that made national and international headlines.
Heiss, who moved to Arizona from Michigan in 1982, has worked for the Patagonia town government and currently serves as the executive director of the Southeastern Arizona Governments Organization, or SEAGO.
It started on a Sunday in December, when Heiss was walking his dog, Feliz, near the Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve.
“The first thing in the morning, she needs to get her yah-yahs out so I take her out there,” he said, adding that he often picks up trash that he sees near the trail.
“I’m walking and my dog’s out ahead of me, I see something red,” Heiss said. “And I’m thinking, is it somebody threw some trash or whatever? (But) as I walk towards it I could see the ribbon. I knew that wasn’t trash anymore at that point.”
Getting closer, he saw what he had spotted in the sacaton grass was actually a note attached to a balloon.
“I said, ‘How cool, somebody sent a note!’ I used to do that when I was a kid, not at Christmastime, but throwing a message in the bottle.”
He knew how unlikely it was for such a note to be found. “Hundreds of thousands of acres of vacant land that could land on. What are the odds? So, all kinds of miracles leading up and all through this story.”
Picking up the paper, he realized it wasn’t just any note.
“Then the excitement just built, because I realized it was a Christmas list,” he said. “I’m thinking ‘Gosh, how cool! What an opportunity to do something nice for somebody.’”
First, however, Heiss had to enlist some help to read the note, which was written in Spanish. He brought it to his wife, a native speaker.
The couple quickly decided to contact local media outlets to try to find the note’s owner.
Eventually, Heiss got in touch with Cesar Barron, a host at Radio XENY in Nogales, Sonora.
Barron mentioned the note on his show and posted pictures on the station’s Facebook page on the Wednesday night after Heiss’s discovery.
“He was all over it, so a lot of the thanks goes to him,” Heiss said.
Within an hour, Barron had found the note’s author: Dayami, an 8-year-old girl from Nogales, Sonora.
The next morning, Heiss and his wife were getting ready to drive to Bisbee when he received a message from Barron. “I was ready to get in my car, literally. My wife had just gotten up and I’m going ‘Wait, look!’”
Barron had sent pictures of Dayami with the balloon that the girl’s parents had taken before they let the balloon go.
Heiss and his wife quickly changed their plans for the day, hustling to Walmart to purchase presents and then heading to Radio XENY’s office in Nogales, Sonora.
Fortunately, the day turned out to be Dayami’s parents’ anniversary, so both had the day off work, Heiss said.
That same morning, Heiss and his wife met with Dayami, her sister, and the girls’ parents at the radio station to give some of the gifts listed in Dayami’s note.
In a call later that day, Heiss said, “There’s a giant fence and a lot of concertina wire out there but it’s not going to break down the (Christmas) wishes of a little girl.”
For Heiss, the gift-giving turned out to be the beginning of a longer story that stretched through the holiday season.
The NI published the story online on Thursday. The next day, the Washington Post had picked it up. Then it was on NPR.
Soon, Heiss and Dayami’s story was turning up across national and international outlets.
“I didn’t know what going viral meant, but now I do,” he reflected in January. “My message light was ‘flash flash flash’ the whole holiday season.”
Heiss said that he received emails, phone calls, and Christmas cards from people who had read the story.
“It’s really cool to have people telling you that you’re an inspiration,” he said.
Not all the feedback was positive; Heiss said that some commenters online had criticized him for reaching out across the border.
Heiss said he wasn’t focused on the political message of his actions. “If that balloon had blown in from Tucson I’d have done exactly the same thing. I didn’t choose to do something because it came from Mexico. I chose to do something because it was a child’s wishes.”
Still, he embraced the symbolism of the story. “I think that I was kind of an instrument for, I don’t know, the great planner to wipe out some of the hate,” he said.
“I got to spread a little love and kindness at a really critical moment in our country’s history.”