Redding Police Department’s Operation Blue Santa…
Normally, when a neighborhood’s calm is shattered by a line of police cars roaring in – lights flashing, sirens blaring – someone’s in trouble. But once a year in Redding, when police SUVs wear antlers, it means something else: Blue Santa’s come to town. Loaded up with toys and candy, he spends a whole near-Christmas day leading his helpers through the city to carefully chosen addresses, bringing joy to everyone they meet.
A royal blue Blue Santa bounds out first from the lead car in the caravan, a bag of presents in one hand and in the other bells on a rope, which he shakes for sleigh effect while calling out to startled neighbors in traditional Santa Claus song, “Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas!” He heads for the designated home with a few helpers, while the rest – police officers, community service officers, cadets, chaplains and family members – spread out on the street and into front yards handing out stuffed animals to every child they see.
An hour earlier, this year’s coordinator, Redding Police Officer Nicole Remfer, announced the plan to her troops assembled in the Redding police station briefing room. “Load up all the boxes and bikes in the hallway,” she commanded. “We have about 255 stuffed animals out there, and I want you to give them out unsparingly!”
This is the 28th year that Operation Blue Santa has rolled through the streets of Redding. Today, the caravan will rouse the neighborhoods of 70 children, nominated by service officers or chaplains based on family need. “This is an awesome way for the police department to give to the community in a different way,” Remfer says. “And I think it’s really special how the community was able to partner with us for donations.”
A large portion of those donations come from a local church in what has become an annual ritual of blessings and giving. Rev. Dr. Mary Mitchell, co-senior minister at the Center for Spiritual Learning, says she started this practice four years ago. “At least a month before Operation Blue Santa, people bring in all these stuffed animals, more and more each week. They fill the stage,” she describes. “We tell everyone who shows up to take one, and we do prayers for comfort and love.”
Mitchell says she started this program specifically for disadvantaged children. “Holidays can be stressful for children who don’t have anything, or are in the hospital. Stuffed animals, like teddy bears, can bring them comfort. That’s why we wanted to get involved. I tell people to hold them and love them up.”
When Blue Santa carries these prayer-charged teddy bears into a designated home, it’s no surprise for the parents, because they were notified he was on his way. But the children aren’t. He calls out to them by name and showers them with Christmas greetings, wrapped presents and sometimes a gift too large to be wrapped, like a bicycle. The child who lives here, perhaps facing a holiday not much worth remembering, receives a Christmastime visit that will live in memory forever.
That’s another part of the plan, according to Redding Police Chief Bill Schueller, a 26-year RPD veteran out on his first Blue Santa run as head of the department. “Operation Blue Santa is to give kids another perspective of police officers, if they don’t have that already,” he says. “And to give back to the community a little.”
From all appearances, the operation is successful, for kids of all ages. As parents watch their kids melt into a grateful embrace with their blue-clad benefactor, the grownups’ expressions of appreciation often border on tears. On his way back to the caravan, Blue Santa greets all in his path, whether by shaking hands or by high-fiving, like with a small girl held tall in her mommy’s arms.
Many in the caravan look more than misty-eyed at times during the day, but there is no holding back at the next stop. Four of the kids targeted on the route sheets temporarily live away from home. They occupy beds in the pediatrics ward at Mercy Medical Center. Blue Santa takes a quieter tone here, impishly peeking through tiny windows so those on the other side can catch a glimpse of white beard, blue cap. Only after being seen will he open the door.
In one room, a young boy on a bed sits up at attention, interrupted from reading. As his visitor steps in, the tiny tyke lights up and cries out, “Santa Claus!” During the visit, this little man is able to forget about where he has to live for now, and to enjoy a few special minutes with his hero. As Blue Santa leaves the room, his expression is hard to read through all the white hairs, but among his helpers are wrinkled brows, many sighs and some tears.
One last cry echoes down the hallway, “I love you, Santa!” Now some sighs, many tears. “That was the most heartwarming thing I’ve ever seen,” beams police chaplain Dennis Ambriz. “It’s a blessing whether you’re one or 101.”
One significant day a year, in neighborhood after neighborhood, Operation Blue Santa leaves in its wake another 15 to 20 youngsters who will astound their friends with tales of what happened today. And for a while longer than perhaps it might have been, no one – NO ONE – will be able to tell any of these boys and girls that there ain’t no Santa Claus. “There is too a Santa!” they will argue. “I saw him! And he is blue!”