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Christmas cheer with Richmond Fire and Police

on November 8, 2019

On December 21, the Saturday before Christmas, children will descend on the Richmond Police Activities League to receive gifts of food, toys and a lottery ticket worth a chance to win a bicycle through the Richmond Fire and Police Holiday Program, an event which has served up to 1,200 families in West Contra Costa County for the past three decades.

Last Friday, November 1, a planning session for the holiday giveaway kicked off at the program’s annual fundraiser breakfast at the local Courtyard by Marriott hotel, where community members and public safety personnel donated $20 dollars each and purchased raffle tickets to win prizes at the breakfast. Marriott hosted the breakfast without charge. 

It all started in 1989, when Richmond firefighter Rod Woods started a small local toy drive to help underprivileged families during Christmas. Years later, the Fire Department’s toy drive program merged with a food program organized by the Richmond Police Department.

Richmond Fire Chief Adrian Sheppard, who serves as the program’s board president, said that Woods invested “a lot of passion … to make sure that people have a good holiday.”  That same passion is shared by people in the fire and police departments, he added. “It’s just a recognition of that, that we want to take care of community.”

About 500 families signed up for this year’s program at the EM Downer YMCA on Saturday, said Cindy Haden, secretary of the program’s board. Haden, a chaplain for the Richmond Police Department and the Chair of the Richmond Main Street Initiative, started out as a police volunteer and has been involved in the program for 26 years. Sign-ups were lower than the program had hoped, and well below the 800 families reached last year, possibly due to the increasing number of different organizations hosting toy drives, she said.

Police Chaplain Cindy Haden and Fire Chief Adrian Sheppard are both board members of the Richmond Fire and Police Holiday Program.

The bike lottery sets the program apart. For the eighth year, Richmond Rotary is partnering with the program to raise money for bikes. One main goal of the program is to have enough bikes for all the children. Pamela Jones, a family law attorney and member of the Richmond Rotary, explained the current lottery doesn’t cover all the children in attendance.

“How do you understand that when you’re a child? [A child] doesn’t understand why the kid in front of him got a bike and he didn’t,” Jones said. For children who grow up in more affluent communities, they may get bikes as a normal part of growing up, she said. “So why shouldn’t the kids in Richmond?”

“We really want to affect people’s futures. It’s not about the bike, it’s about all the things you can do because you got a bike,” Chief Sheppard said, adding the program hopes the kids can use the bike to go to a library, spend time with friends, or simply stay active and healthy.

The program purchases bicycle parts and then recruits volunteers from the fire and police departments, as well as the community, to put them together. Beyond bike assembly, the spirit of volunteering pervades the year-long planning process from bagging toys, to preparing food in December. Businesses like Chevron make monetary donations. The local YMCA and Police Activities League provide space for the program.

“Everyone chips in in their own little way, and that helps out a lot,” said Ben Therriault, detective and president of Richmond Police Officers Association. Having been has been the vice president of the program’s board for four years, Therriault attributes part of the program’s accomplishment to a good relationship between Richmond’s public safety and the community, as well as the community members on the board who maintain that relationship.

“There’s a lot of people in Richmond – whether they are still working, whether they are retired – they still have the kind of tradition of service,” Detective Therriault said. “And that’s important. That’s what facilitates our success.”

Chief Sheppard said organizers and volunteers get as much or more out of the program as do the recipients of the holiday gifts. The benefits of being a giver are truly “heartfelt,” he said, adding, “I think I will be involved in it for the remainder of my life.”

Information on how to donate or volunteer can be found on the program’s website. The Richmond Rotary also lists information on its site for those interested in funding more bikes.

Featured image: Richmond Police Captain Joey Schlemmer handed off prizes to guests who won the raffle at the fundraiser breakfast last Friday.

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