For some, holiday cheer arrived not in a sleigh but a car that had flashing lights and a siren.
By Mary O’KEEFE
Anyone who braved the malls this season may not have felt the holiday spirit surrounding them. Instead they were probably surrounded by people – a lot of people, all moving in opposite directions and all apparently in a very big hurry. Whatever your religious or non-religious beliefs, this season is supposed to be “the season of perpetual hope,” according to Kate McCallister (Catherine O’Hara), the mom who just wants to get home to her son in “Home Alone.”
But if you were in Glendale or Crescenta Valley recently, the holiday spirit was visible among local youth, law enforcement, parks and recreation personnel and a bunch of car guys.
On Dec. 17 the community room at the Glendale Police Dept. was filled with presents for 31 families in the Glendale area. The Glendale Police Officers Association had collected funds and reached out to local businesses and community members in an effort to bring holiday cheer to parents who might otherwise have nothing to place under the Christmas tree.
Cops for Kids is a personal program for the GPD. Families in need are primarily identified through the schools. Then cop families become personal shoppers to buy each child presents from their wish list. Sgt. Ben Bateman has been part of Cops for Kids for years, as has his family. His son Travis is a Glendale officer.
“He started helping me with [Cops for Kids] when he was 7,” Bateman said.
And now as a GPD officer Travis continues the tradition. Other members of Bateman’s family acting as Santa’s helpers include wife Sylvia, son Tyler, daughter-in-law Roxy, nephew Adam Ybarra and daughter Victoria Wurm.
Throughout the year the GPOA fundraises through various events including a poker night and golf tournament. Sponsors include Kiwanis of Glendale, the Glendale Elks Lodge and members of the Rotary Club who also were in attendance helping to distribute gifts. Bateman said over the years they found it was not enough to just bring toys to the kids but they wanted to get to know the families and their needs. The week prior to the Thursday night delivery of toys, police officers delivered 31 Christmas trees donated by Home Depot to families.
One of those officers who delivered trees was Chief Robert Castro. He was also there to deliver the gifts along with his family – wife Cynthia, son Robbie and his son’s girlfriend Cheyenne Wiscovitch. The officers and families divide the responsibilities of shopping and delivering the gifts for the 31 families.
For Castro, it was a time for the recipient families – and their neighbors – to see police officers in a positive light. When Castro entered one of the apartment buildings on his way to a family’s home, a little boy watched as the uniformed officers walked past.
“Would you like to be a cop for the day?” Castro asked. The little boy smiled and Castro handed him a sticker.
“When you see an officer you can wave at us,” he said to other curious children.
The emotion and smiles that were shared made it obvious that these families were grateful and a little overwhelmed at the Santa’s helpers who came into their home.
“Thank you so much,” said a mom when she saw all the gifts under the tree.
“I didn’t think we were going to have a Christmas,” said another mother looking at the tree while holding back tears.
Castro added it was important that officers bring their families to help with Cops for Kids. It was a reminder that police are people, not just those who show up when something goes wrong. Cops for Kids is also a positive experience for both GPD personnel and their families. It was obvious the officers were having as much fun as the kids when they put the gifts under the tree.
“It’s not just what this does for the families, it’s what it does for us,” Bateman said of the gift of sharing.
That feeling of reaching across barriers was also felt on Saturday morning by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. – Crescenta Valley Station personnel. Volunteers, staff and deputies gathered to organize toys on tables, serve breakfast and even invite Santa Claus to join in giving to local families in need for the CV Sheriff’s Toy and Food Drive.
CV Sheriffs partnered with the L.A. County Parks and Recreation at CV Park. A line of guests formed early in the morning while Mrs. Claus walked and chatted with children and their families. Though breakfast was served in the community room it was clear what everyone was waiting for: the chance to talk to Santa and to walk into the courtyard of toys.
“We will serve about 150 families,” said Sgt. Cynthia Gonzales, community officer, as she prepared for the event.
Deputies used to go to the homes to deliver the presents; however, Gonzales changed the procedure a few years ago to create a real holiday celebration.
“At first we [held the event] at the CV Station,” she said.
But then they reached out to the Parks and Recreation Dept. and the event took on a different feel when surrounded by trees, having a community room for breakfast and a separate Santa workshop where kids could talk to Santa and then pick out a small stuffed animal.
“We couldn’t do this without the community that donates toys and food,” said CV Station Capt. Bill Song.
For several weeks before Saturday’s event, sheriffs placed silver and red bins at schools and local businesses like grocery markets. The community filled the bins. They also donated funds that deputies and volunteers used to purchase toys and food.
Several bicycles were donated as well. As children entered the courtyard of toys they could enter an opportunity drawing for their bike of choice.
Song said this was a good outreach for the station, to let families see the deputies not just as law enforcement but also as people who care.
“It’s not just about enforcement,” he said.
Song’s deputies were in their uniforms so kids and their families would feel comfortable talking to law enforcement.
Families left with bags of groceries and children carried their toys – sometimes bigger than they. Zeke Cross is a very determined and decisive toddler. He walked into the courtyard of toys and knew immediately the perfect gift for him. It was a rocking horse with a twist; instead of a horse it was a stegosaurus. It was bigger than he, but he was absolutely confident this was for him, so he dragged it around the courtyard. When his mother attempted to help him, he ignored her – he was, after all, 3 years old.
Deputies and volunteers couldn’t stop watching. Zeke smiled for all the camera phones and even paused to proudly show off his newfound riding skills.
It was those types of smiles that meant the most to all of those at the event.
Law enforcement personnel are not the only members of the public safety community who give back to others. Spark of Love Toy Drive is sponsored by ABC7 and Southern California firefighters. For over two decades the toy drive has collected more than nine million toys for local kids. The toys are donated by firefighters and community members. On Friday night, the Armenian Youth Federation from the Armenian Center in Montrose continued a five-year tradition by donating two very large boxes of toys to Glendale Fire Station 29.
“The youth of the CV Armenian Center collect gifts as part of their outreach to the community,” said Harry Leon, member of the Center and CV Town Council vice president.
The toys are collected at fire stations throughout Southern California and taken to a center where they are organized by age groups and then distributed to families in need.
“The toys will be distributed to families [in need including those] in our community,” said Firefighter Juan Oliveros.
ABC7 and Southern California firefighters are celebrating the 23rd year of the Spark of Love Toy Drive. The campaign collects new, unwrapped toys and sports equipment for under-served children and teens in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange, Ventura and Riverside counties. Toys collected in the respective counties are distributed locally.
Garret Dvoracek, an ambulance operator, took the kids from the youth federation on a quick tour of the station. Capt. Stavros and firefighters Oliveros, Jim Michael and Leo Pryor accepted the toys and thanked the kids for their support.
Los Angeles County Fire Dept. Station 82 in La Cañada was also the recipient of gifts by generous community members but this time the toys arrived in real classic style.
It was nine years ago when Victor Lucchesi, Gary Evans and Rick Chew, all members of the Early Rodders, began talking about what they could do to give back. Their idea was to support Spark of Love and to do it as only car guys can – delivering the toys to the fire station in a series of classic vehicles.
On Saturday mornings members of Early Rodders, a group of men and women who simply love cars, park in the United Artists lot in La Cañada to share car stories and answer questions from those who walk down the long lines of vehicles and dream of someday having their own classic car.
For the last several weeks, Early Rodders gathered toys from its members as well as teachers, kids and the staff at St. Andrews Catholic School in Pasadena and Dunsmore Elementary School. Then on Saturday morning, firefighters at Station 82 watched while a caravan of 50-plus vehicles drove up to the station. The fire engines had been moved to leave the station garage open to accommodate several of the vehicles.
“The toys are being collected here and then will be picked up by buses and taken to [a collection area],” said Capt. Banuelos.
The toys were taken into the station’s office. The firefighters not only received toys for Spark of Love but also enjoyed an exclusive car show.
“This is really cool,” Banuelos said. “It’s not every day 50 hot rods are in the fire station.”
May your neighbors respect you, troubles neglect you, the angels protect you and heaven accept you.