Area law enforcement makes the holiday season joyful for children

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The holidays are upon us and eager elves throughout Valencia County are preparing and organizing their annual events to give something special to those who are less fortunate.

Amid all the hustle and bustle, some may sometimes forget the meaning of the season. This is, after all, a time to give, not to receive.

For area law enforcement, the holiday season is the perfect time to connect with the public while making hundreds of children's Christmas just that much more special.

Belen Police Detective Sgt. Joe Portio is once again organizing the department's Cops to Tots Toy Drive. For the past seven years, Portio has made it his mission to make sure as many deserving children as possible receive at least one gift for Christmas, and this year is no different. In fact, Portio hopes this year's event will be bigger and better than ever.

In years past, the Belen Police Department has given gifts to approximately 200 children each year, but in 2012, Portio said, more than 330 children got to meet and greet Santa at Belen City Hall and leave with their gift.

Police Chief Dan Robb has even expanded their list to include everyone with a Belen mailing address, so those living outside the city limits, such as Rio Communities, Jarales and Los Chavez can come in and sign up for gifts for their children.

The deadline this year to sign up is Friday, Dec. 13. Santa Claus will pass out gifts from 1 to 3 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 19, at Belen City Hall. Those wanting to sign up will need to bring a proof of address, such as a utility bill or a driver's license.

This year, Portio says, they'll be checking their list against that of the sheriff department's — and checking it twice — to make sure they aren't duplicating families.

"With more and more families, we are trying to help during the holidays, we don't have enough to give multiple times to the same families," Portio said. "We're trying to make it as fair as possible so every child can get a gift."

Portio said they've been fortunate with the amount of donations they receive every year, including from the department's own officers.

This year, Portio said his fundraising efforts for the annual event began early, and with the generosity of Walmart, Walgreens and Dollar General, he is hopeful that every single boy and girl who wants a gift will get one or even two.

"This year, we'd like to openly ask everyone, whether you're a business or a family, to help support a family in need," Portio said. "It's not so much that we want monetary donations, we just ask that you bring in a gift."

The gifts needed are for children ages 1 to 12 years old. While the cut-off age is 12, Portio said, he will not turn away older children in families. And because the toys for older children are more expensive, the detective is hoping people will be as generous as possible.

Kicking off the Valencia County Sheriff's Toys for Tots from Cops campaign this year is a motorcycle run sponsored by American Legion Post 81, American Legion Riders Chapter 25 and the sheriff's department.

Registration for the event will be at 11 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 30, at The Home Depot in Los Lunas. Valencia County Undersheriff Linda Corriz-Barreras asks that riders, as well as the public, bring an unwrapped toy (no stuffed animals) to the motorcycle ride for the children of Valencia County.

"We did it last year too, and we had about 110 bikes that came out," Corriz-Barreras said. "There's no registration fee, and we just ask everyone to bring a toy. This year, they're expecting more than 200."

The run, which will be escorted by Valencia County sheriff's deputies, will go up N.M. 314 to Isleta, through Bosque Farms, Peralta, Los Lunas and Belen, ending up at the Sheriff's Posse Cafe, where there will be a live band, door prizes and more.

Starbucks will be providing coffee for all the riders before the run and The Home Depot will be giving them doughnuts.

"Last year, we gave 543 children toys," the undersheriff said. "But we also gave 53 special needs students from both the Belen and Los Lunas Schools something and we were also able to donate toys to (Rancho de Los Niños) and the Domestic Violence Shelter."

Corriz-Barreras said the annual campaign and event is a way for the sheriff's department to give back to the community and ensure a positive connection between local residents and law enforcement.

The deadline to sign for the sheriff's department Toys for Tots from Cops is up Friday, Dec. 6. Santa Claus will pass out gifts beginning at 1 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 21, at the county administration building at 444 Luna Avenue in Los Lunas. To sign up, bring proof of residency, such as a utility bill or a driver's license.

"For the sheriff's department and the deputies, this is a way to give back to the community in a positive way," Corriz-Barreras said.

The Los Lunas Police Department is also making sure the holiday season is festive for area children and their families.

Their 10th annual Winter Ball will be from 6 to 9 p.m., Friday, Dec. 6, at the Daniel Fernandez Recreation Center on N.M. 314. The event is free and open to the public, said Treena Saavedra, evidence tech for the department.

The annual event allows children not only to visit with the member of the police and fire department, but they will also get to meet with Santa and receive a gift. Saavedra, who is one of the organizers, said Panda Express will once again provide food and a deejay will be on hand, playing music for children to dance to.

The Winter Ball, Saavedra said, has grown since it first began in 2003. Last year, about 500 children attended, and she is expecting even more this year.

"We work off donations and we strive very hard to make sure each child gets a gift," Saavedra said. "Sometimes we have parents tell us that this is the only gift that their children will get, so it really means a lot to them and to us to be able to do this every year."

Much like the other law enforcement agencies in the county, LLPD depends on the generosity of businesses and private citizens to make sure the event is a success. They are also accepting new toys, gift cards as well as monetary donations, which can be dropped off at the police department.

While the event is free, Saavedra asks families who attend the Winter Ball to bring non-perishable food items that will be donated for the fire department's holiday food baskets and to St. Vincent de Paul.

The LLPD's kindness during the holiday season doesn't stop there. Each year, through its Cops and Kids program, officers take a number of children on a day of fun, starting with bowling and pizza at Isleta Fun Center and then a $100 shopping spree at Walmart. This year, the even will be on Saturday, Dec. 21.

The children meet the officers at the police station and get to ride with the officers to the bowling alley. Saavedra says the kids get a kick out of riding in the a police car with the lights and siren going.

Last year, the Cops and Kids program provided for 16 children, and Saavedra said she hopes this year they'll have enough funding for at least that amount or even more.

Even the Bosque Farms Police Department doesn't have an annual holiday event, it doesn't stop them from giving from their hearts to families in need.

"We always, with the help of a couple of businesses, collect for Toys for Tots," said Bosque Farms Police Chief Greg Jones. "In years past, we collect the toys and invite Bosque Farms and Peralta elementary teachers and toys pick out toys for kids who they know aren't going to have a Christmas and rest go the sheriff's department.

"But last year, we learned a lot of children who go to Ann Parish Elementary don't even get socks for Christmas, so we donated an entire pickup truck of toys to the students. We started the tradition last year and we'll do it again this year."

Jones said last year, literally hundreds of toys filled up the department's entire training room. He said the majority of gifts were donated by the public directly to the police department and at Lodi's Beads and Dollar General in Bosque Farms.

"The people here really support us for Toys for Tots, including cash donations, which we use to go and buy new toys," the chief said. "This wouldn't work if we weren't supported by the community, so kudos to them. All of people here on The Farm have huge hearts."

Anyone who wants to donate to the Bosque Farms Police Department's Toys for Tots can do so by dropping off toys or monetary donations by Wednesday, Dec. 18.


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.