A preteen dressed as a rat tried to save Christmas from a nefarious elf named Knuckles and the Abominable Snowman. Standing beside her was a talking can of yellow Play-Doh. Sitting in the seats, waiting for their cue, were the 12 reindeer.
And five rows from the stage sat Armando Mejia, beaming a wide smile like a proud parent.
He nodded when the dialogue went smoothly and giggled at the jokes. And after it ended and all the characters took a bow, dozens of the kids mobbed Mejia and covered him with hugs.
The 31-year-old father of three clearly relished watching the Christmas play last week at an auditorium at Fort Lewis’ Madigan Army Medical Center. The Spanaway resident is the military outreach director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound.
Mejia’s job has become a bit of salvation for the former Fort Lewis soldier who nearly died four years ago when a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee in Iraq. He struggled with a grueling physical recovery and a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Today, he helps coordinate programs for the hundreds of children in the area – from as far west as Belfair and Bremerton and eastward to Spanaway and Graham – whose parents serve in the armed forces.
"Working with these kids," he said, "has helped turn everything around for me."
Mejia grew up poor in Los Angeles, the oldest of five children. He was in high school when his father died; his mother eked out a living making food and selling it to neighbors.
He started working two janitorial-type jobs – at an upholstery shop and a Mexican restaurant – to help his family. He enlisted in the Army less than a month after graduating from high school in 1996.
"We were low-income – food stamps, welfare, one-bedroom apartment," he said. "I would sleep in the living room. And you never forget where you come from."