WINTER HAVEN -
With sirens wailing and service lights flashing, the Winter Haven Police Department delivered a little Christmas to nine families and 30 children for Operation Reach Out on Saturday.
Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus accompanied the multivehicle team as it raced throughout the city and announced its arrival at each destination with plenty of fanfare.
The police department started Operation Reach Out in 1995 with Officer Terry Bowden of the school-based DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program involved as the coordinator each year. "We used to find those in need in the community a long time ago when we had a bike unit," Bowden said. "Since we lost the bike unit, I meet with the DARE officers who meet with the (Polk County) school officials and guidance counselors, and that is how we get our (list of ) families."
In 1995, when Operation Reach Out had only three or four families to help, the police officers would buy the food and gifts, Bowden said. "We still let the officers buy kids toys," Bowden said. "They get sizes for the children that are posted on a wreath (in the department) and they select a child's name and the wish and go purchase it and wrap it and bring it back to be distributed.
"In the last year, Wal-Mart has been involved, and so we use their money and go shopping with the police and community officers. They wrap the gifts, and that includes the staff and officers' gifts that are all put together for distribution.
Through the SHARE Food Network, $50 worth of groceries can be purchased for $27, Bowden said. "The Police Benevolent Association provides the money for the families' meals," he said. "The meals are already packaged by the SHARE people and we pick them up and deliver them that day along with the gifts." The SHARE menu for the holidays this year is a ham and all the trimmings.
Among its stops, the Christmastime caravan visited Maribel Fuentes, who was looking after her two children and her brother's two children. "Business is slow right now," Fuentes said. "I am in landscaping. If there isn't a lot of grass to cut this time of year, there is no work."
Bowden said Operation Reach Out can serve about nine families annually.
"There have been many other calls for assistance, and those calls have been referred to other agencies or emergency services," the officer said. "Sometimes people call us as a last resort and we take them on as an emergency and then help them out."Bowden said that those associated with the program have seen an increase in families needing help. Some of the stories they hear are about people who have lost their jobs through layoffs or for other reasons."Many have a lot of kids and they are working, but it is just not enough," Bowden said. "A lot of ours are tragedies, where children lost their parents and grandparents are taking care of the kids."
Ten-year-old Noel Owens lost each of her parents within a year of one another. Santa and company came to the Gillard home, where Noel resides with her grandparents, Lee and Shirley Gillard. "There sure are a lot," Noel said after being presented a bag filled with wrapped presents.
"The young children get more and that is because their gifts cost less," Bowden said. "The children get at least three or four gifts each. A lot of them will get clothes. One family wanted warmer coats this year. When we go shopping, we buy toys and clothes. They (the families) are going to be really blessed."
Those who contributed to Operation Reach Out this year "are people who are thankful they have jobs and want to help other people," Bowden said. "It is good for our community."
Assisting with the deliveries, which included candy cane giveaways, were several police officers and Winter Haven Police Chief Buddy Waters, his wife, Betty, and their dog, Sassy, who, dressed for Christmas. Police Capt. David Brannan and his wife, Kim, have participated in Operation Reach Out each of the past four years. "We help distribute and deliver the gifts after other volunteers have had the fun of shopping for the families," Kim Brannan said.
After photographs are taken with family members and Santa and Mrs. Claus at each stop, the caravan would head to the next household with police sirens and lights on.
"I have been volunteering with the police department for seven years doing things like taking children's fingerprints," Jim Bernardoni said. "For this program, I helped wrap and load the gifts. I do this because I love working with kids and I love to see them smile."
This is an awesome event we do every year and we just love it.