BY HELEN PARSHALL — Over 100 police officers and children streamed into the Mall at Prince Georges on Dec. 10, loaded in police cars with lights and sirens blaring, eager to shop for the holidays.
It was all a part of Operation Santa with a Badge, an annual Hyattsville tradition that brings together officers from agencies in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania with more than 100 children from local low-income families for a chance to experience some holiday magic.
“My favorite part is seeing the faces on the kids,” said Doug Holland, Hyattsville police chief. “More often than not when the kids are shopping with the police officers, they’re buying things for other family members, their brothers and sisters, mom and dad, too.”
This year marked a first: The city received a handwritten letter in Spanish from Daniela Barrientos, a nine-year-old girl living in Santa Ana, El Salvador.
Officer Mayra Umanzor, who joined the Hyattsville Police Department in February, was excited to participate in her first year with Operation Santa with a Badge, made even more special by this unexpected addition to the program.
Before the convoy took off from Magruder Park to pick up kids from the four local schools, Chief Holland addressed the crowd of officers to share Daniela’s story and held up the letter for everyone to see.
In the letter, Daniela writes directly to Santa Claus, asking for help for her family even though they don’t have a chimney on their house.
“[Daniela] said that I’m not asking for toys; I’m asking for a job for my dad, and clothes for my mom and dad because they won’t spend any money on themselves,” said Holland, translating portions of the letter.
Between donations from the officers and surrounding community, over $400 dollars was collected for Daniela’s family so that Umanzor could shop for gifts for them that morning.
“Just knowing that I have family back home in El Salvador, and so I personally know what they’re going through, means a lot,” said Umanzor. “And just the fact that the little girl asked more for her parents than she did for herself? I just hope that she enjoys all of the gifts given to her. I pray that her father gets a job soon, and that she’s blessed with many more things this life can give.”
“That’s the power of what you all have done here,” said Holland. “You guys are out there every day, and you don’t think of how you impact people’s lives and how far it travels, but this drives it home.”
Now in its thirteenth year, Operation Santa with a Badge reaches about 100 kids and is growing all the time. Started by retired Hyattsville Police Officer Mike Rudinski and his wife, Claire Rudinski, the program began in 2003 with only 8 children.
“I’m just smiling the whole day — that’s why I do it every year,” said Rudinski.
It’s a sentiment shared by every officer that participates in the program. Despite the chilly morning, officers gathered at Magruder Park to work out logistics before going to pick up children from several local schools.
“We try not to have children come here so they can experience the magic,” said Rudinski.
When the officers pulled out from the park, the lights and sirens were already blaring, with Santa at the helm of the Hyattsville Elementary-bound crew, riding in the distinctive HPD Hummer.
They drove through neighborhoods, radios tuned to the same frequency to facilitate communication, and sirens blaring with the children at the controls. Traffic was stopped along the way so that the convoy could reconvene. By the time they reached Adelphi Road and East-West Highway, the line of eighty or more police cars stretched for almost a mile.
Hyattsville Sgt. Suzie Johnson had a full car that morning. Two seniors from Northwestern High School, Daniel Birch and Sidney Smith, were riding along for their learning service hours to shop with Johnson and Alberto Lucero, a fifth grade student from Hyattsville Elementary School.
Johnson said she was eager to have a team with her this year.
“You ever see the smile on these kids’ faces? You have to see it for yourself,” said Johnson. “The best part honestly is when you get the kids and you give them a gift card and they wind up spending all their money shopping for their family. When that happens, we end up pulling money out of our pockets to buy that child a toy for themselves, too.”
Alberto was smiling when they finished, holding a large bag full of new shoes, a sweater, as well as battery cases and accessories for his Xbox.
Jennifer Villatora Amaya, a third grade student also from Hyattsville Elementary School, was celebrating her ninth birthday on the same day as Operation Santa with a Badge.
“I’m going to buy toys!” proclaimed Jennifer. “My favorite toys are Barbie and Dory!”
“Listening to the kids talk — that’s the best part,” said Detective Frank Wulff, of the Maryland Park Police.
It was Wulff’s first year participating in the program, and he could not contain his laughter while he shopped with Jennifer in Target.
“I just want to watch them smile and have fun,” said Wulff. “I got lucky. Jen said she’s never really gotten to hang out with police officers, so it’s something new for her and for me. There’s nothing better than being nine years old and it’s Christmastime.”
“I’m going to remember him forever,” said Jennifer, pausing from showing off her cart full of toys for herself and for her family, as they waited to check out.