All it took was an Instagram post. By the time the post was deleted an hour later, word had spread quickly through Santa Ana.
When Acting Chief Robert Rodriguez and his elves arrived at the corner of Halladay Street and Chestnut Avenue in the Pacific Park neighborhood for the annual holiday gift giveaway, hundreds of kids and parents had flocked to the area.
In a little more than an hour, Rodriguez and his staff distributed more than $6,900 worth of toys to kids of all ages from the neighborhood. Although it was touch and go whether the supply would meet demand, officers were able to deliver at least one toy to each child in the line.
Residents Liliana Uribe and Jasmine Rivera and their kids were at the front of the line.
“We saw a message at 2 p.m. and came down,” said Rivera, there with her four kids ranging in age from 12 years to 9 months old. “We started the line.”
Uribe said the announcement was an unexpected delight.
“Some parents, like me, can’t afford gifts for all our children,” she said. “This is really nice and (the police are) friendly.”
The moms were also surprised at how quickly the line grew, stretching more than a block by the time the police arrived at about 3 p.m.
“We were like, ‘Oh, my God,”” Uribe said.
The woman who leaked the event online, after coordinating with Santa Ana Police Department Commander Gil Hernandez, was Selica Diaz, a former network leader of the Pacific Park Neighborhood Association.
After agreeing with Hernandez to make the announcement shortly before the Chief was to arrive, Diaz said she took down the post when she saw the crowd swell to more than 200 people.
However, she was grateful children from her neighborhood, filled with dense apartment housing and a large younger population, got a shot at being recipients in the annual giveaway.
“I know there’s a great need in the neighborhood,” she said. “This is the first time they’ve done it here. I’m extremely happy.”
In past years, under retired Chief David Valentin, who started the giveaway six years ago, the event was unannounced, due in part to fears police would be overwhelmed.
“I think it’s a unique approach because it’s not expected,” Valentin said at the time. “This is spontaneous.”
This year the response was huge. Hernandez said involving community leaders was important.
“We reached out to influential community people, because they know how to get to the people who need it most,” he said.
Diaz supported the event because it helps introduce children and parents to police in a positive and nonthreatening atmosphere. Rodriguez, who became acting chief in November and was at the front of the gift line, thanked Diaz and community leaders for helping to organize the event.
“This is a benefit not just for the police department but the community when they get to meet us like this,” Rodriguez said.
Although initially the police had hoped to visit several areas, they were barely able to supply the one neighborhood. Rodriguez said he would like to expand the event to two or three deserving neighborhoods in future years, although he said that would require significantly more fundraising.
The toys at the event were donated by law enforcement and came from funds generated by the annual “31-for-31” 5K Holiday Fun Run/Walk.
Diaz said even a small positive interaction can make all the difference. As an example, she told the story of a child in the line just minutes earlier.
“A little boy asked, ‘Are the police here to arrest me?’ I said, ‘No they’re here to help,’” she said.
Later, after receiving a gift and a stick-on police badge, Diaz said the boy told her he wanted to be a policeman.
When police arrived with a city pick-up overstuffed with gifts, they immediately began dispensing gifts to the kids in line. Soon presents were flowing into the hands of happy children, who laughed, smiled, and even cried. There were footballs, basketballs, soccer balls, and play balls, dolls and dollhouses, board games, stuffed animals, and art and activity sets.
Some gifts went faster than others – a Mr. Potato Head rotated in and out of the back of the truck before a happy child took it home. One boy traded in a miniature train set for an indoor basketball hoop. The boy was delighted.
Acting Deputy Chief Jose Gonzalez said of the effort, “This clearly pays dividends for the police and the community. You can’t replicate the joy in their faces.”
“This is exactly what we wanted,” Diaz said. “We’ve tried to create bridges. When residents and police get together, it creates community.”