Operation Blue Santa Delivers Cheer
With sirens wailing, a swarm of patrol cars pulls up to a motel. A man in blue climbs out of one, wearing a badge and a Redding Police Department nametag – but his fluffy white beard and jolly round belly make him look suspiciously like someone who hails from parts much further north.
Sure enough, his helpers pull festively wrapped packages out of the squad cars and deliver them to the wide-eyed youngsters who live in the motel. As they open the items, they discover that each item came straight from their wish list.
When Operation Blue Santa began in 1991, the Redding Police Department (RPD) and Redding Peace Officers Association were able to provide Christmas gifts to three families.
“Officers would come into contact with families and they thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to help these people at Christmas?’” says RPD’s Bobbi Berg, who coordinates Operation Blue Santa. “The officers and (police department) personnel donated money, and they bought food and one toy for each child.”
This year, about 30 struggling families will benefit from the philanthropic endeavor. Naturally, the uniquely attired Santa is the main attraction – but his elves include RPD officers, chaplains, cadets, other police department staff and McGruff the Crime Dog.
Since Santa doesn’t leave anyone out, the team brings along about 400 stockings to distribute to other children they encounter during their deliveries.
In addition to delivering holiday cheer to families at their homes, the caravan stops at the Shasta Family YMCA and Mercy Medical Center in Redding, where they brighten the spirits of youngsters spending the holidays in the hospital.
“It’s hard when someone has to spend the holidays in the hospital. Blue Santa lets our patients know that Santa has not forgotten about them – it offers them great joy,” says Susan Harrington, pediatric manager at Mercy. “When Blue Santa visits, it brings a smile to the children’s faces that have been through a traumatic experience, injury or surgery. It really shows the spirit of Christmas.”
Youngsters are curious but nonplussed about Santa’s divergence from his traditional red attire. “He says he wears the blue suit because he’s honoring his friends in blue who take care of everybody,” Berg says. For the 11th year, Blue Santa’s boots will be filled by retired Sgt. Dan Kupsky, who has amassed numerous heartwarming stories.
“We had a family who’d just moved up here from Oakland and was living at the mission,” Kupsky recalls. “When we went to their house, they were just overwhelmed – they could not fathom that this was what law enforcement was like here. Another year when we stopped at Mercy, there was a family from Washington who had been in a car wreck. They said, ‘We thought our Christmas was ruined.’ They went away with the feeling that Redding is a community that cares.”
Operation Blue Santa welcomes donations. Cash is preferred, since Berg personally visits with each family to get a feel for exactly what the youngsters would like. “I ask if there’s something they’ve seen that they want really badly,” she says. “We want them to feel special because we shopped especially for them.”
Sometimes the wish lists are heart-wrenching, Berg says.
“One little kid said, ‘My dad really needs a new pair of blue jeans. His have a hole.’ That kind of stuff just gets you,” she says.
A primary reason that Operation Blue Santa’s food baskets include grocery gift cards rather than turkeys or hams is because many families don’t have a place to cook or a dining table to eat on, she says.
Of course, non-monetary donations are gratefully accepted, Berg says – for instance, items such as puzzles and books make wonderful additions to “family game night” baskets that supplement the individually chosen gifts, she says.
This operation provides a real-life lesson in gratitude for more economically stable families. “Some of the officers bring their children,” says Berg, a property and evidence technician for RPD. “They see people who don’t have everything that we have.” At 8 am on December 23, the operation will get under way, and Berg and her team look forward to that day with eager anticipation.
“Sometimes you walk into houses and they have no tree, no furniture, no anything,” Berg says. “They grab you and hug you and they’re crying, saying their kids wouldn’t have anything else … the rewards are so much more than the work.”