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Wanda White fought back tears — the joyous kind — while a handful of police officers stood outside her South Redding hotel room Wednesday morning. From the parking lot, faint red traces of cop car lights reflected off the bulbs of her Christmas tree.
Her children, Haley, 8, and Jacob, 17, stood enthralled with the grand procession of the many-car caravan. Then they watched in amazement as a Santa in a blue-and-white suit met them with gifts to place under their tree.
“This is very generous,” White said. “I didn’t expect all this – it’s a blessing in disguise.”
The White family was the third stop on a list of 26 locations chosen this year for the 20th anniversary of Redding Police Department’s “Operation Blue Santa” – an annual event featuring Santa dressed in blue, giving gifts to underprivileged children in the area.
First on the list was a visit to Mercy Medical Center’s pediatric division. The roughly 10-car convoy stopped in front of the hospital. Santa (aka retired Redding Police Sgt. Dan Kupsky), robed in law enforcement blue Santa garb, made his way through the hospital – trailed by some 20 helpers. As he passed, hospital staff, patients and anybody else in the area stopped to see what the big deal was.
Santa and his posse traded season’s greetings with patients, staff and passersby. Gifts were given. People loved it, said Megan Loveless, Mercy’s public relations coordinator.
“It really brightens everybody’s day, it boosts their energy,” Loveless said. “Some of the children weren’t expecting Santa, it was very cute.”
Following the hospital, 25 households received a visit from the convoy. Having started 20 years ago, the program has grown, said Bobbie Berg, who’s been organizing the event for the past 13 years.
“It’s an addiction. We used to give about one present per child,” she said. Operation Blue Santa started with police officers donating a little money to help those whom, through their interaction, they saw wouldn’t have a Christmas otherwise. While it’s not advertised, word has spread and community members are chipping in for the cause. Berg said about $4,000 was spent this year on gifts for the children. Additionally, some families were given gift cards to purchase groceries.
“We’ve gotten some really good (individual) donations this year. The Salvation Army helped supplement the gifts,” Berg said.
The intention of the mission is good-natured. But in the past when Santa arrived at an apartment complex or close-knit living quarters, kids from surrounding rooms and houses came out excited to see Santa. They grew sad when only some people got presents. Now, in addition to the gifts for the 26 families, the program also packs and hands out 500 stockings and nearly as many stuffed animals.
One can easily surmise that giving a child gifts, especially those who think they aren’t going to find anything under the tree, will elicit joy. But several parents appeared even more touched by the program than the children.
“This is the best Christmas ever,” said one dad, Jason Daniels. His wife, Tammy, took it a step further: “If it wasn’t for this program, our kids would have to do without this year,” she said.
Their children, Cory, 12, and Dakota, 9, mentioned that their letters to Santa asked for skateboards, helmets, footballs and basketballs. Sure enough, under the tree sat a number of presents – two of them looking strikingly like a skateboard and helmet in wrapping paper.
A few of this year’s selected families have participated in the Blue Santa program before, and want to get to a point to help others in the future.
“Actually, this is the third time we’ve used the program,” said Amber Huff, whose daughter Tilyn, 10, is certain Santa read her wish list. “We were kinda bummed. After last year, we really wanted to donate this year. We wanted to help somebody out like we were helped, but unfortunately, we couldn’t this time.”
Kupsky recounted a story of an 8-year-old boy who was visited as part of the program last year. The boy recently came into the police station with his mother. “He asked for Bobbie, and when she came out, he handed her $25 and said, ‘Take this and buy a present for somebody like you did for me,’” Kupsky said.
“He had saved his own money all year for that,” continued Berg. “I almost cried when he said that.”
Kids like Summer Root, 9, were introduced to the program through a traffic stop. Root’s grandmother was pulled over and issued a citation by Officer Steven Morehouse.
“I met her (Summer’s) grandmother a week and a half ago. After I found out about their situation,” including an absent mother, limited income and more, “I put them in touch with Bobbie,” said Morehouse. “Summer didn’t think she was getting anything for Christmas this year.”
Many of the officers who participate in the event take their children to help distribute the presents, and to emphasize the need for gratefulness.
“It’s fun,” said Patrick Morehouse, 12. He is thankful because he sees “how little some people have. It’s fun helping.”
Officer Eddy Gilmette agrees. “The purpose of this is to give to children who wouldn’t have a Christmas. Some of the families, we know, wouldn’t have the opportunity,” he said. “It puts smiles on our faces, and on their faces.”
Freelance writer Joshua Corbelli lives in Redding. He likes to eat (feel free to cook him dinner), he likes to cook (feel free to eat his meals), he likes to write and he wishes you the best of the season – whatever your season may be.
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