HIGH SPRINGS ‒ It's not just Santa Claus who delivers presents at Christmas. Charities and organizations hold toy drives to gather gifts for underprivileged children and food for those in need, making Christmas special for kids and families that might otherwise receive little.

Since 2008, the High Springs Police Department (HSPD) and Fire Department (HSFD) have been making dreams come true through Operation Holiday Cheer. The first responders collect donations of new toys, shoes, clothing and books from the community so they can gift them to local children.

Beginning in the fall, HSPD and HSFD ask for donations, and working in conjunction with the City of High Springs CRA, Parks and Recreation Department and Public Works, they set up collection points within local businesses and city sites to gather donations.

This year Operation Holiday Cheer made six special deliveries, with additional families picking up their gifts directly from the police department. The event was organized by High Springs Police officer Jason Taylor with help from HSPD administrative assistant Angela Robertson. Taylor personally visited families, talked with the parents first and if approved, to the kids. Many of the recipient families, but not all, were chosen from a list provided by the High Springs Community School, that notified the School Resource Officer of families they felt could use help.

According to Robertson, donations come from all over the community. “About 60 percent are donations from businesses, 30 percent from individual citizens and about 10 percent come from organizations like the Rotary Club, Kiwanis, Women’s Club and other local organizations.

“The whole community pulls together for this,” said Robertson. “In addition, on cash gifts, we try to support local businesses by buying presents there. The families also receive a gift card to buy food for the holidays.”

Robertson said that donations grow each year, especially after the pandemic when so many families were hurt financially. “This year we were able to help over 50 families,” said Robertson. “But we don't want the community to become complacent and think we have enough.” Robertson says that any increase in contributions increases the number of families they can help.

On the morning of Dec. 20 its go time as a caravan of multiple police cars, a High Springs fire truck and a City of High Springs public works pickup truck formed at the police department, and lined up for the mission. The public works truck pulled a long trailer packed with bags of Christmas presents. At 9 a.m. the caravan headed north with lights flashing and a police siren to alert drivers at crossroads. Drivers pulled to the side of the road as the convoy passed, some waving or clapping, knowing the mission the police were on.

The first stop was a large family with five children. The children had not been informed of the surprise visit and were stunned by the multiple police cars with lights flashing. Two of the officers wore inflatable costumes as Santa and a Christmas tree. As the costumed characters and police officers holding large bags of presents approached, the children's eyes widened in wonder and the realization that the bags were for them. Each child was gifted a huge bag with multiple presents as the older ones helped the younger ones open the packages.

The second stop had not been suggested by the school, but rather through HSPD. Responding to a service call at the home, officers saw that the family with two teenage daughters had fallen on hard times and was struggling financially. On the delivery day, the mother was home with her daughter and the father was working, unaware of the event. Hearing that there were police cars with lights flashing at his house, he raced home in his work truck, and jumped out of the vehicle asking what had happened to his family. When informed it was a Christmas visit, he clutched his chest in relief and thanked the officers for their gifts for his family.

The third stop was at the Circle K gas station, where the mother of two pre-teen girls was working. Unable to change her shift, her daughters were brought to the store, unaware of why they were coming. When the convoy arrived, both girls were surprised, hesitantly approaching the police vehicles. Two large bags were presented to the girls with the older girl receiving a skateboard and a helmet to go with it.

The fourth stop was at a home with four children, all under the age of 10. The two youngest were unsure of all the attention until the mother helped them open gifts and they realized the gifts were for them. One young girl sat on her mother’s lap hugging a doll while the others quickly opened their gifts.

The fifth stop almost didn’t happen as no one would answer the door after repeated knocks. The police staff member who arranged the visit called the mother, only to find out she was at work, and the older teen son was not supposed to open the door to strangers—including multiple police officers with lights flashing. After she contacted her son, he timidly came out as did his younger sister. Their shyness gradually disappeared, replaced with joy as they realized the gifts were for them.

The final stop was also from a service call and did not involve children. In November, police and EMT's were called for a medical emergency with an elderly couple who only spoke Spanish. The couple became frightened by the situation and began to panic when officers tried to take the husband to a hospital.

HSPD officer Mayuly Mardase spoke Spanish and was called to the scene. While resolving the communication problem, Officer Mardase found out that the couple had no heat and no money. HSPD decided to make them one of the recipients of Operation Cheer. Again, the elderly couple did not know about the special holiday visit. With Mardase acting as interpreter, the HSPD presented the couple with electric blankets, a heater and warm clothing as well as gift cards for food and clothing.

Operation Cheer is well named. Through the commitment and hard work of first responders and a generous community that helps support it through donations, Operation Holiday Cheer brings happiness and cheer to those who might otherwise not have a merry Christmas.

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