Having only recently moved to Tustin with her three children, Gena Zarza had never seen the kind of Christmas spirit bestowed by the Tustin Police Department that she experienced during the Santa Cop festivities.
Zarza, along with her 2- and 3-year-old daughters and 10-year-old son, were among 80 specially selected families treated to an evening of holiday-themed activities, highlighted by face time with Santa himself during the 30th annual event, designed to brighten the holidays for under-served families.
The kids received gifts and dinner, played games, and had their faces painted Dec. 11 at the Clifton C. Miller Community Center in Tustin.
Some were even lucky enough to win one of several bicycles given away in an opportunity drawing.
“My son was stoked about it,” Zarza said. “He was just so excited. They had no idea… We got here and they were excited.”
Donations from City of Tustin employees, Tustin Police Department employees, the Tustin Lions Club, the Tustin Community Foundation, and Smart & Final make Santa Cop possible every year, said Community Services Officer Adriana Tokar, who has been organizing Santa Cop for more than 25 years.
“It’s the only way something like this can work,” Tokar said. “We were able to accommodate all the families. That’s because people are so generous with their time. We start working on this in July and we are full speed ahead in October. It’s well worth it. Look at their faces.”
The invited families are referred by schools, area churches, the Tustin Family and Youth Center, and by the officers themselves.
Santa Cop has grown exponentially since the event started 30 years ago with 13 families being served punch and cookies.
Santa Claus, a.k.a. Nasario Solis, has been on hand for all of them, donning the same red suit he wore 30 years ago.
“This is a great event,” said Solis, who became an investigator with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office after spending years with the Tustin Police Department.
Solis is essentially retired but works as master reserve officer.
“In fact, when I went to the DA’s Office, (Tustin Police Department) asked me to come back and I said absolutely,” Solis said.
The Tustin Police Department hosts a variety of events for the community throughout the year.
For 15 nights every December, Santa and his elves bring good tidings to virtually every block in the 11-square-mile city as part of the Santa Sleigh festivities.
Tustin PD also hosts an Open House for the community every year.
“I’ve been here 29 years,” said Lt. Andrew Birozy, the department’s public information officer. “I started as a dispatcher and I remember we were very big into community involvement back then. I think every chief, every council member, and every employee realizes community engagement is part of our culture. We have a very good relationship with our community and we want to keep it going.”