By Rick Miller
Santa Sheriffs gathered last week to pack their patrol cars with bags of gifts for less fortunate families across Cattaraugus County.
You could tell were the Santa Sheriffs because they wore red and white Santa hats in place of their uniformed hats.
After nights of shopping and then wrapping presents for children and other family members, Sheriff Timothy Whitcomb, school resource officers and others from the Sheriff’s Department checked their lists — twice — and started loading several patrol cars and a transport van.
The gifts were wrapped by elves and stored at the former Cattaraugus-Little Valley Elementary School. Patrol cars lined the Thompson Street entrance to the old school awaiting the bags of gifts.
The Santa Sheriff Program in Cattaraugus County started in 2004.
Whitcomb was undersheriff at the time and helped start a cooperative program involving the Sheriff’s Department, Social Services and the Office of Children and Family Services.
Whitcomb’s brother Dana was director of the OCFS facility in Limestone. Cattaraugus Community Action is now involved as well.
“In the first year we helped five or six families,” Whitcomb said. “Since then, it’s taken on a life of its own.”
School resource officers, Community Action and Social Services help identify families in need of Christmas help. “The SROs help families in their school districts,” Whitcomb said.
This year, according to Lt. Melanie Churakos, the Sheriff’s Department’s Stop DWI coordinator, Santa Sheriff will help 35 families.
“The numbers go up and down depending on the number of family members and our donations,” she said.
Churakos has been helping with the Santa Sheriff program for four years. This year she is co-chairman with Kim Harrison of the Department of Social Services.
After the families to help are selected, they are contacted as to needs and clothing sizes. If the items are among the toys and clothes that have been donated, the list is filled from there. Otherwise, monetary donations are used to buy items locally.
The shopping is done at Walmart, Payless Shoes and local grocery stores — Tops, Reid’s Food Barn and Service Stores. Then stores also make donations, Churakos said.
“Everything is from Santa,” Churakos said. “We make sure everyone in the household gets a gift.”
In addition to gifts for each family member, there is a separate gift of household supplies and personal care products. Each family will also receive a turkey or ham, Churakos said.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Churakos said. “We just made Christmas for these kids.”