2017 Honorees – Presidential Award, Lifetime Achievement and Of the Year Awards

It takes great individuals and organizations to continue moving the profession of aftercare to the next level. Each year, it is an honor to award those who strive to provide the highest quality of service, promote education and lead with ethical standards. Congratulations to the following individuals; your state association applauds your dedication and leadership in the industry.

Presidential Award

Each year the AFCCA Elected President selects an individual who has high ethical and professional standards, is dedicated to the betterment of the Funeral Industry in the State of Arizona and who goes above and beyond their call of duty. This year’s recipient is just that. Without a doubt, you know that Donna Backhaus has a love for this industry and for all her students that graduate through the Mortuary Sciences Program. Donna has touched so many lives and helped mold and shape the future of our industry here in Arizona. She is integral in keeping our state mortuary sciences program accredited and for making sure that continuing education is an important aspect for every licensed Funeral Director. Thank you Donna for all that you do for our Association, state and for every student that graduates through the program.

Lifetime Achievement Awards

“In recognition and gratitude for outstanding vision, dedication, and commitment to the funeral industry in Arizona. For their many years of service to the community, compassion towards others, and establishing high standards of care and professionalism.”

Jim McCready

Jim McCready graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree from the University Of Minnesota School Of Mortuary Science in 1969.  Earlier, in 1967, Jim married his college sweetheart, Nola.  They will celebrate their Golden Wedding Anniversary later this year.  Jim and Nola have two children, Mike (Eve Goldman) McCready and Gina (Heith) Fink and three grandchildren, Jackson, Harrison and Madison Fink.  Jim was a funeral home owner in his native State of Nebraska for many years.  Jim sold his funeral homes in Nebraska and he and his family moved from Broken Bow Nebraska to Arizona in 1991.

Of his many accomplishments, Jim served as president of the Arizona Funeral Directors Association and research project manager for the National Funeral Directors Association. He also served on several committees for NFDA including the Governance Committee, Policy Board, and the Advocacy Committee. Through his career in funeral service, Jim has also served as a Director of Operations for a corporate funeral service company with multiple locations as well as manager for a family owned funeral home in a large metropolitan area.  Jim gained certifications as CFSP (certified funeral service practitioner) and CPC (Certified Preneed Counselor) and holds professional funeral service licenses in Nebraska and Arizona along with life insurance licenses in eleven States.  In 1997 Jim joined Great Western Insurance Company as a Regional Manager, a position he held for 13 years.  He served client funeral homes in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Southern Nevada.  During his tenure he received three Regional Manager of the Year Awards, and was the first Regional Manager to break the $20 million mark in annual production for the company, setting the bar for the other regional managers.  In 2011 Jim joined forces with AFP Horizon, an innovative Preneed Marketing company, where he served as a Senior Vice President.  Jim has spent a great deal of his professional life working funeral service and has been an advocate for the advancement of technology.

Jim is semi-retired now and has many interests that occupy his time.  He is a great lover of music and the arts.  He is passionate about the music world and shares this with his son Mike.  One of the joys they share is singing Karaoke, especially harmonizing in their duets.  Being near the ocean is also a great love of Jim and Nola’s.  Together their passion for sailing saw them become the owners of a sailboat that they kept in San Diego and enjoyed many years of exploring the seas.   They have spent a great deal of time in the Florida Keys living the “Salt Life”, especially enjoying the live music scene.  During their recent stay in the Keys, Jim celebrated his 70th birthday by riding his bicycle 70 miles, in one day!  Jim has always had a passion for riding bicycles, from his early years in competitive racing to today where he still rides almost every day, often with a group of guys known as the “Wheel Weezers”, or by himself, if no one else is going that day.

A favorite quote that Jim often shares is, “The place for the thing you want, is currently occupied by what you’ve settled for.”   Perhaps this quote provides a glimpse into the driving force and philosophy of a man who has accomplished great things in his both his professional career and personal life.

Neil Walker

Neil’s passion is bringing support to families who are struggling with the loss of a loved one. There is no single approach that is right for every family and Neil is excellent at keeping an open mind and utilizing his listening skills. When families experience trauma and loss of a loved one, it is not uncommon for their lives to unravel.

Neil has three questions he asks himself and tells his employees to ask themselves when working with families:

  1. Is it good for the family?
  2. Is it ethical?
  3. Is it good for the company?

How did Neil become a funeral director, you might ask? Neil was working for a construction company building houses in Eloy, Arizona when the owner, Darold Albrihon,  approached him. Darold was also the owner of a funeral home, Valley Funeral Home Eloy.

It was 104 degrees outside and Neil was on the roof. He needed someone to make a “first call” and asked if Neil would be willing to do it. He did and that’s when he discovered his passion. Which is a good thing because Neil also worked on the construction of the Funeral Home and was instructed to paint the exterior. He started with the garage….but, failed to remove the hearse. And yes, the hearse was painted the same color of the building…he is so much better in the Funeral Industry.

His construction life ended shortly thereafter as he sold his home and moved to California to attend Mortuary College.

Neil became a licensed Funeral Director and Embalmer in 1974. In 1978, he moved back to Oklahoma to help his parents, so he was licensed in Oklahoma and worked for many family owned establishments.

In 1988, Neil moved back to Arizona and held various jobs: Funeral Director, Cemetery Superintendent, General Manager, Cluster Manager, Market Manger, Cemetery Associate Broker, Accountant, Real Estate License, Counselor/Therapist and lastly Market Director and Corporate Officer.

Currently Neil oversees 8 cemeteries and 24 Mortuaries in the Phoenix area, along with mentoring 300 employees.

He is an active participant in the Chandler/Gilbert Community College Mortuary Preceptor Program, and recently was the sole recipient of the SCI Hall of Fame Award for Operations and National Funeral Director of the year award….that’s a lot of hard work!

Neil has been married 31 years to his beautiful wife Sharon. He is the proud father of four children; David, Jodi, Crystal and Nathan. He is a blessed grandfather of 10…yes 10, grandchildren. He enjoys family time, watching NASCAR and fishing.

“Of the Year” Awards

“For demonstrating exceptional professionalism, customer service, and ethical conduct while serving their community and for contributing towards the advancement of the Funeral Industry in Arizona.”

Funeral Home of the Year – Carrillo’s Tucson Mortuary

Carrillo’s Tucson Mortuary celebrated 100 years in business in 2014 and has had four generations of family owners. Arturo Carrillo began his business on Congress and near 5th Street, which is where Carrillo’s still stands today. He established relationships with the community and the families he worked with. He even accepted chickens and tamales as payment when a family couldn’t afford anything else.

It was these standards of care that have followed through over the years and laid the foundation for the success that they have today. While they no longer accept chickens and tamales as payments, the Carrillo’s still tries to grant the requests of the families they serve, no matter how strange they may be.

Today, Leo C. Carrillo, the great grandson of Arturo, is the owner and is continuing with the family legacy of community involvement. They are active with many youth programs, including sponsoring a swim team and a youth cycling program. Carrillo’s participates in many events with the Amphi Public School Foundation, March of Dimes and Bens Bells Project.

Carrillo’s Tucson Mortuary goes above and beyond the call of duty to take care of their families. They offer military and law enforcement discounts, as well as helping families in need of assistance with funeral costs in their immediate neighborhood. While Carrillo’s cremation rate is still under 30%, they recognize that cremation is on the rise and they offer many options to the families in the way of merchandise and celebration of life features to accommodate the changing trend.

Due to the loss of parking downtown close to us, Carrillo’s purchased a 6-seater people mover (golf cart). During services, especially at night, they shuttle their visitors and family back and forth, the community loves it.

Congratulations to Carrillo’s Tucson Mortuary as the 2017 Funeral Home of the Year.

Cemetery of the Year – Hansen Desert Hills Mortuary and Cemetery

Hansen Desert Hills Memorial Park was created in 1997 by the Hansen family. The cemetery is a very boutique environment encompassing side-walks, fountains and private family reflection areas.  The memorial park was designed to offer families a place to remember and memorialize their loved ones.  The staff works very hard to make the park a welcoming and comfortable place for families to visit.

Hansen Desert Hills is also very active in their community staying involved in several different organizations.  They are connected in the annual Angel of Hope candlelight vigil, Honor Health foundation, the Desert Mission food bank, Child Crisis toy drive, and ComfyCozy’s for Chemo.

The Hansen family is also a great supporter of the AFCCA and the Foundation for Children. They exemplify the mission statement and are integral in helping maintain the high standards of care in the funeral profession.

Congratulations to Hansen Desert Hills Mortuary and Cemetery.

Funeral Associate of the Year – Hillary Samples, Mountain View Funeral Home & Cemetery

When it come to the funeral home, cemetery and cremation associate of the year, all hands go up in the air for Hilary Samples. This woman is like a machine of “awesomeness”. First and foremost, her families LOVE her. She represents Mountain View Funeral Home Cemetery and Crematory, San Tan Mountain View Funeral Home and Superstition Funeral and Cremation Center. She meets with families in conjunction with a licensed funeral director. Her role is to share cemetery information with the family.

Cremation is at an all-time high and she does an excellent job showing the value of permanent placement of the cremated remains in our niches, or many other options for cremation. Hilary also is responsible for following up with the family and doing an after-care visit. She has a comforting warmth about her that puts people at ease. She has been able to help pre-plan other family members so they don’t have to worry about their survivors when their time comes. She is compassionate, sincere and gentle.

Her surveys come back nearly flawless with comments such as:

“I had no idea what to expect and I am glad we did all the paperwork before my dad passed, it made it much easier. Hilary was so patient with my family, even when we could not make a decision.”

“When my mother got sick, we did not know what to do. A friend pre-arranged her funeral with Hilary so we did the same for my mom. She died in the middle on the night on December 26th and everything was so smooth. Hilary was just as caring and kind after she died as she was when she came to our house.”

Hilary is also responsible for our community outreach. She does so many cool events that draw people into our funeral homes; such as lunch and learns, Mother’s Day event, as well as other holidays including Father’s Day, Spring and Fall events. She has now completed two very successful Quartermania events that have benefited local charities. The first was to raise money for Sunshine Acres Children’s Home and she raised over $2000. The first event was held at Superstition Funeral Home weeks after it was completely remodeled so it was a great way to showcase the funeral home. The second event honored Sharing Down Syndrome and was held at San Tan Mountain View Funeral Home in Queen Creek. She raises over $4200. The mayor even attended and spoke.

Her creativity does not stop at the funeral home. She goes into the community and gets involved with the senior centers. Not just to “sell them pre-need funerals” but to get to know them and have fun. She has taken groups to the Harkins movie theater, gone kayaking with them, and even has brought in a chef for a cooking demo and hosted a wine and cheese reminisce event. She is always looking for ways to stay in front of opportunities and never hesitates to go the extra mile even in the event of long days, nights and weekends.

Hilary is truly selfless! At the office, she is the first to volunteer to help with anything that needs to be done. When we have more services at the same time then people to cover them, she always steps up to help a colleague at the graveside, in the funeral home or even at a church. She is truly a blessing to work with and I believe there is no other associate who works, harder, smart and is more engaged than Hillary Samples. She is truly exemplifies the mission of AFCCA, she helps family with integrity, honor and care. She educates and helps families prepare for the most difficult day of their life. She is an advocate for our profession and connects with people with ease and gains their trust better than anyone.

Funeral Director of the Year – Don Runyon, Mountain View Funeral Home & Cemetery

I would like to nominate Donald “Don” Runyon for the Funeral Director of the year because he is one in a million when it comes to care and service. As his manager, I could write 10 pages on how great “I” think he is however, the proof is in what the families say about Don. We send a survey to every family we serve. He has never received a survey with less than excellent comments and ratings. Here are just a few:

“San Tan Mountain funeral home offers a wonderful service. Don was so kind & thoughtful. He really made sure we were taken care of. Such a nice man. We are so happy with the service provided for our daughter’s funeral and our decision to use San Tan Mountain View”

“We were very pleased with Don, he was very kind, respectful, understanding and compassionate. He was always available and communicated very nice with me. He was always prompt at getting back to me.”

Don goes above and beyond to create services with meaning. He asks the necessary questions to make sure he understands what a family is looking for in a celebration of their loved one’s life. He is creative and not afraid to help the family celebrate in a way that others might think is a little too outside of the box. Here are just a couple examples of how he has helped families celebrate:

  1. A gentleman passed away and the family wanted the service at the family’s mini ranch. Don went to the family home and set up an entire “Western Theme” They had straw bales for people to sit on, saddles for décor and a horse tied up to a hitching post. The service was held outside with everyone wearing western clothing like in the old west days. He transported the deceased in the casket to the family home for the viewing and service. At the conclusion, the pall bears placed the casket on the man’s favorite semi-tractor and they processed to the cemetery. The family was so grateful that they could honor their dad in a way that he would have loved.
  2. Don helped another family set up the entire service at their family home because a key family member was bedridden and housebound and could not come to the funeral home, so they brought the funeral to her. Don brought all the flower stands to set up the flowers and momentos just like as if they were at the funeral home. After the service, he stayed to put the house back together and replaced all the furniture and he even helped serve the Kentucky Fried Chicken, which was the deceased’s favorite fast food.
  3. Don had a young person who passed away in an accident riding a motorcycle. The family still wanted a motorcycle themed funeral so he arranged the young person’s friends that she rode with regularly, to bring their motorcycles to the funeral home. They lined the entire entrance like an isle for guests to walk through when entering the funeral home. Everyone was asked to wear motorcycle attire and as people came in and signed the register book he set up a memories board that each person was invited to write on if they so wished. Instead of ordering flowers for a casket spray the young ladies riding jacket was used as the centerpiece on the casket and as everybody paid their respects they were asked to sign the casket. The family was so pleased with everything Don did for them, they not only sent back the survey, they wrote him a beautiful thank you card for all his extra efforts.

Most importantly Don puts every family before himself. If the service is on his day off, without ever being asked, he works. If he needs to stay late or come in early (or both) he does it with a smile and willingness that shout out “TEAM PLAYER”. Occasionally he likes us to thank him with a Dairy Queen break, but even without ice cream, he goes the extra mile. He is a true asset to our profession and I am honored to have him on my team. Thank you, Don for exemplifying the mission statement for AFCCA as well as San Tan Mountain View Funeral Home. If it is legal, ethical and feasible, Don makes it happen. He finds a way to work with whatever request a family has and makes great suggestions that the family otherwise would not have thought of. Thank you Don for being part of our family.

Supplier of the Year – Anne-Marie Harris, Mickelson & Ray

Ann-Marie is a true asset to our industry. She understands that this is not a Monday through Friday 9 to 5 job. She answers her phone anytime of day, night or weekend, always willing to help. She always gets back to me the same day even if she doesn’t have an answer. She comes out and does trainings, brings lunch, and creates contests to present and sell products more effectively. When it comes to service towards families, Ann-Marie and Mickelson and Ray are top notch. A specific example was on a Friday at 5 o’clock Ann-Marie came to meet with a family that wanted to enhance some of the flowers on an upright granite monument. Even though she did not provide this monument she graciously met with them and made the monument beautiful – just the way they wanted it. She truly cares about people and it shows. She was so compassionate and kind with the daughter and listened to understand her request. We are lucky to have her as our representative. Another specific example is she helped us design a baby Memorial but the family was struggling with designing. The family must’ve changed the artwork eight times. Ann-Marie and Todd never complained once they just made the changes and send them back quickly for the family. Ann-Marie is passionate and a real genuine woman!