The two Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies approached the man in a truck full of recyclables.
Initially confused, and perhaps worried, by the approaching deputies, the man’s reaction quickly morphed into elation when the deputies explained what they were doing:
Handing out cash.
As the man accepted the money, the tears started flowing.
Then came the prayers.
And so it went, in similar fashion, over 10 days throughout Orange County leading up to Christmas as the OCSD, in partnership with Trauma Intervention Program (TIP) Orange County, handed out $17,000 in the second-annual Operation Secret Santa.
The money came from an anonymous donor to TIP, a non-profit whose 90-some trained volunteers work with police, fire departments and hospitals to provide emotional and practical support to people immediately after a tragedy.
OCSD personnel identified deserving children and families, and then TIP volunteers met deputies and coroner investigators at 15 schools and residences to deliver the donations.
TIP volunteers also rode with deputies around Orange County distributing Secret Santa funds to surprised and delighted residents.
“Our police and deputies are amazing partners and great humans,” said Kristi Batiste, crisis team manager for TIP Orange County, who rode around with deputies to hand out money to people they encountered.
“We at TIP get to see that every single day,” Batiste said. “It was an honor to be with them and a pleasure to see the community experience this side of the men and women who serve Orange County.”
Gail Krause, public affairs manager at the OCSD, said $13,000 was dispensed in targeted giving and $4,000 for spontaneous giving on patrol.
People typically received a minimum of $100 in crisp new bills, and some families got $1,000.
“We don’t know the depth of the need of any of the people we contacted,” Batiste said of her ride-along. “But we know that we not only gave a monetary gift but we gave a little bit of hope, some caring and concern.
“The deputies got to give freely to a community they serve in — no strings attached. Those who received the gifts were deeply touched, and hopefully will share a little of the hope and spirit with others.”
One morning was typical of the targeted giving, when School Resource Officer Anthony Sambrano, accompanied by Krause and TIP volunteers, visited Laguna Hills High School, San Joaquin Elementary School in Laguna Hills, and a residence in Aliso Viejo, where a mother with four small children has to sell homemade food to help support her family.
At LHHS, four students were told to report to the assembly room.
“I see a lot of blank faces here,” said Sambrano, toying with the students, who were flanked by counselors and other school officials.
Then he told them about Operation Secret Santa and handed each of them $500.
Audrey Carlin, 16, a junior, has a 3.3 GPA and is on the volleyball team. She recently lost her mother to cancer, and her father is not around. An uncle will be assuming guardianship of her.
Marvin Herrera, 16, a junior, volunteers inside and outside of school. His mother is a single parent and his family is struggling financially.
Elizabeth Martinez-Figueroa, 17, a senior, has moved seven times during high school due to her family’s financial struggles. Despite this, she has a 3.9 GPA.
Jenifer Juarez-Gomez, 15, a sophomore, moved to the U.S. with her family two years ago. Her mother is a victim of domestic violence and is separated. Despite her situation, Jenifer is a role model at LHHS and works hard to maintain good grades.
“I’m so thankful for this,” Jenifer said of the $500. Her mother showed up at the brief ceremony carrying roses and balloons.
“This will be a lot of help,” Jenifer’s mother, Marina, said. “She’s a very good daughter.”
TIP volunteers Sharon Richards, Mary Shandrow and Cathi Hartwell showed up at LHHS wearing festive holiday outfits.
“You all are amazing, amazing kids and you have great futures,” Richards told the four. “So hang onto that, listen to your teachers and counselors, and just continue being the amazing kids you are. We are so honored to be here.”
At San Joaquin Elementary School, two families were awarded $500 each.
Cameron Outland, 11, a sixth-grader, has two younger sisters who attend San Joaquin. According to school officers, each of the Outland siblings follows the lead of their mother by being respectful, polite and hardworking. Cameron’s mother is working hard with little of what she has, and the family was homeless before recently securing a place to live.
David Thompson, 10, a fifth-grader, also has two other sisters who go to San Joaquin. All are doing very well with their schoolwork. David’s mother, Earleen, is a single parent who is struggling financially. Prior to finding stable housing, the Thompsons also were homeless. In addition, David has been battling an ongoing hearing problem.
When Sambrano, working with TIP volunteer Karolina Lorry, announced the gift of $500 to the Thompsons, Earleen gave out a loud whoop.
Then came the tears.
“Why is mom crying?” a daughter, Dakayla, 5, asked.
“She’s happy,” Sambrano explained.
Earleen Thompson said the money will be used for Christmas presents.
“I’m a big bag of tears,” she said.
Thompson hugged her children before they went back to class, and then danced down the school hallway and out the door.