Christmas and joy don’t always go hand-in-hand for families facing hardship, but Tustin PD is on a mission to change that.
The department on Wednesday, Dec. 16, held its annual Santa Cop event for local families in need at the city’s Community Center.
More than 150 children were picked by schools, area churches and the Tustin Family and Youth Center to participate in the event, which was started more than 20 years ago by members of the police department.
“There are families in the city that wouldn’t have a Christmas if it wasn’t for this event,” said Tustin Police Chief Charles Celano. “We do this because it is just another opportunity for us to engage with the community in a positive way.”
Children scurried in the entryway of the center talking with officers and meeting recruits from the Goldenwest Criminal Justice Training Center.
Kids tried their hand at bingo and the bean bag throw to win tickets and claim holiday-themed prizes.
As the families sat back in their seats the guest of honor, Santa, arrived with a police escort. The families were given the opportunity to “Selfie with Santa” and to tell him what was on their Christmas list.
After photo time with Santa, the families were treated to a traditional holiday turkey dinner and dessert.
Once the families finished dinner, Miss Tustin and her court led sing-along carols until gifts were distributed to the families.
Police and city employees donated hundreds of gifts that were stuffed into large bags and passed out to each family by Chief Celano and Capt. Steve Lewis to close the evening.
“When you see the look on some of these kids’ faces as they accept that bag, it really gets you,” Lewis said. “And you know they genuinely need this.”
Amanda Stahmer watched as her sons, ages 7 and 10, bounced from game to game to collect enough tickets to exchange for a paddleball game.
“It’s been a tumultuous year for my family,” Stahmer said. “Sometimes kids need to feel normal when there are not-normal things going on in their lives.
“These police officers understand the difficulties that some of us face.”
Tustin resident Carey Keftaro said she was grateful her 15-year-old daughter, Najat, won a certificate to purchase a bicycle — fortuitous considering the teen’s beach cruiser was stolen just last month.
The family had never heard of Santa Cop before this, she said.
“This is just really nice,” Keftaro said. “I’m surprised by all of this. We didn’t expect to be invited to something like this.”
Chief Celano said impacting families in such a positive way is what motivated the department to grow the event and it is what inspires the Police Department to commit to hosting Santa Cop for many years to come.
“We want to remind families that we are human, that we are approachable,” Celano said. “We want families to feel comfortable calling us and this helps us build that relationship. That in and of itself is worth it.”