“Ho, ho, ho and away we go!”
The Christmassy proclamation echoes through the neighborhoods of Tustin for 15 nights every holiday season as Santa Claus and his helpers spread cheer through the city.
Residents know exactly where they need to be when Santa’s sleigh, commandeered each year by the Tustin Police Department, stops on their block.
And when the sleigh stops, the little ones hop on board for a free candy cane, a photo, and a little face time with the Jolly Old Elf himself.
“The community loves this,” said Captain Bob Wright, who dons the red Santa suit and hoists the kiddos on his lap at least once every year. “I like seeing the enjoyment of the kids and the parents. It just seems to be a good family experience and it shows the relationship between the police department and the community. It actually does bring neighborhoods together.”
About 22 years ago, Master Reserve Officer George Vallevieni, who had been a patrol officer, was asked by a supervisor to develop an outreach program for the city.
A skilled carpenter, Vallevieni purchased an old flat-bed trailer for $150 and crafted a wooden sleigh, white picket fence, and seven reindeer. He added garland and Christmas lights.
Santa and his elves climb on board, blast Christmas music on a loudspeaker, and make the rounds.
Vallevieni has since retired, and this year, Lt. Andrew Birozy was among the police personnel who drive the truck that tows the trailer, displaying the sleigh and the picket fence, and of course, Santa.
“I’ve been living here for about seven years, so every year, we never miss it,” said Berica Escobar, who was joined by her 5-year-old son, Bradley. “For me, it’s very hard for him because he has autism. Taking him to the mall is very hectic. The lines are very long. I always love this, every year. It makes us comfortable … They come to our home.”
Tustin Police Department has earned a reputation for its emphasis on community engagement. Deputy Chief Jeff Blair said Santa’s Sleigh is arguably the Department’s strongest outreach program.
“I don’t know of any other police agency that does this,” said Blair, who has been serving as Santa’s helper every year since the program started. “If you think about it, 99 percent of the time, when people call the police, something bad has happened. They don’t call us to tell us they won the lottery. This is the one time where they get to engage with us with something good happening.”
Early on, Santa and his crew made the rounds over only four nights because the Department wasn’t sure how Santa’s Sleigh would be received by the community, Vallevieni said before his retirement.
“Crowds got so big, the Department extended Santa’s Sleigh to 10 nights and then finally to 15. We got mobbed.”
“We’ve been living in this community for seven years. We love it. We think it’s great because we don’t have to go too far,” said Natalie Maloof, the self-proclaimed “neighborhood mom.” “He comes right to our door and it brings the community together.”