The recently widowed mother of three was in the middle of dinner with her family when she heard the knocking at her front door.
“Hi,” the visitor said to the teenager who opened the door. “Is Carmela here?”
The family appeared a little anxious by the surprise visit from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputy to their home in Rancho Santa Margarita on Saturday.
Carmela Rodriguez joined her son, Armando Araujo, 17, at the door.
Reserve Deputy Ryan Miller handed Rodriguez a white envelope and told her to open it.
“Why?” Rodriguez asked Miller when she saw what was inside:
Two crisp $100 bills.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Por qué?”
“This is from Santa,” Miller told her.
“Hay algún problema?”
“No,” Miller said. “There’s no problem.”
Rodriguez’s initial look of confusion transformed into a beaming smile of gratitude.
After a few more exchanges of pleasantries, Miller left.
Rodriguez said she will put the $200 toward rent and maybe buy a few Christmas presents for her kids.
And so it played out Dec. 18 — deputies from the Saddleback substation of the OCSD in Lake Forest collectively handing out $2,000 to unsuspecting people they encountered over the course of a few hours during a rainy evening shift.
In a first for the OCSD, the agency conducted “Operation Secret Santa,” made possible by an anonymous donor.
The donor gave a total of $13,000 to a non-profit partner of the OCSD, Trauma Intervention Program Inc., with the request that they money be dispensed to needy families ahead of Christmas.
TIP acted as a conduit between the donor and the OCSD, which split the gift into two, assigning $5,000 to deputies in the coroner division to give to families they dealt with over the year whom they felt could use the money.
The remaining $8,000 was broken down into four piles of $2,000 that was dispensed by patrol deputies during separate shifts over the weekend.
For the O.C. Sheriff’s Dept., “Operation Secret Santa” provided deputies a rare opportunity to engage in purely positive contact with the public — to show them that behind the badge, they’re just people, too.
Monserrat Hurtado, a young mother, stared at the $200 Miller had just given her as she walked up to a Ross Dress For Less at a strip mall in Lake Forest, her two children, Ryan, 8, and Chavi, 3, in tow.
“For me? This is for me? Are you serious?” Hurtado asked.
Outside that same store, another mother, Tina Garcia, was getting in some Christmas shopping with her children, Julio Jr., 22 months and Jairo, 7 months.
“I wasn’t going to come today because it was raining,” Garcia said. “This is so surprising.”
Throughout “Operation Secret Santa,” a TIP volunteer was paired up with a deputy.
Margie McInnis, a TIP volunteer for six years, was assigned to Miller. She dressed the part of Christmas elf, from Santa hat down to her boots, and decorated envelopes with Christmas stickers for the cash. Those envelopes were placed in larger envelopes from the OCSD with “Operation Secret Santa” printed on them.
“This is a fantastic idea,” said McInnis, legal assistant at Santa Ana-based Williams-Abrego, in-house counsel for Farmers Insurance. “I am just thrilled to death to be physically part of this.”
At a Christmas event at City Hall in Mission Viejo, Miller and McInnis surprised four families with gifts of cash. Santa picked the families and used a hand signal to indicate to the duo that they should approach with the gifts.
At one point, Miller crouched down and hugged a preschooler who was going on and on about how he wanted to be a policeman when he grew up.
At a lower-income apartment complex, Miller and McInnis came upon a woman who was unloading her car with her gaggle of children.
The faces of her kids lit up when Miller handed her an envelope containing $200.
Cruising around in a marked OCSD patrol car, another OCSD deputy who asked not be named stopped a car with a dead tail light in Mission Viejo.
Instead of issuing a ticket, the deputy gave the young couple $100.
They were stunned and thankful.
Miller and McInnis also dropped by an ampm mini mart and gas station in Laguna Hills that deputies frequent to give $300 to three employees who work the late shift.
When deputies swing by, the employees always have hot coffee and snacks ready for them.
McInnis said she enjoyed watching Miller become increasingly moved throughout the evening as he handed out the cash.
The reserve deputy said it was a great experience working with McInnis and others Saturday night.
“I was honored to participate and bring happiness to those in need during this holiday season,” Miller said.
“In our position, we’re generally not seen as the bearer of good news,” he added. “I believe this event may have helped change the view of what a deputy sheriff is within our community.
“And I personally have always been one to say, ‘Happiness doesn’t result from what we get, but from what we give.’”