Dec 112008
Authors: Natasha Pepperl

When Matthew Staley headed out Saturday, he was only looking to spread some smiles and get some pictures with community families. But he got more than that when one overjoyed elementary school girl in west Fort Collins threw her arms around him as he handed her a bag of Christmas gifts.

“It’s no secret right now that many are struggling to make ends meet,” he said as he left from the CSU Police Department Saturday morning to give presents to poor families in Fort Collins as part of a Larimer County-wide police effort to spread holiday cheer. “There’s a great need.”

The program, called Santa Cops, brought gifts to 1,390 families from Larimer County police departments, including CSU law enforcement, which Staley works for. In its 21st year, the initiative brought smiles to more than 4,000 children’s faces.

According to Martin Shields, a CSU economics professor who specializes in the northern Colorado economy, about 34,000 people in the area live below the poverty line, which is set at $17,600 a year for a three-person family.

And this year was the biggest for the law enforcement-led charity effort, which is fed by community donations and implemented by police volunteers.

The “amount of toy requests go up every year,” Staley said. There are “thousands of families requesting help . No one gets turned down. All they have to do is say they are in need.”

As he said, some are struggling just to have milk with their cereal.

One year, a child asked for a tree, and when the officers delivered her gifts found that she was living in a car with her parents. Another’s gift request was for a bed for her younger brother.

Fundraisers for the annual event are organized throughout the year, and as it draws closer, gifts are purchased and wrapped by community and police volunteers. The community plays an essential role in this event, Staley said, which depends on numerous businesses and individuals.

It “wouldn’t happen without the support of the community,” Staley said.

The three CSU officers who participated in Santa Cops contributed their help despite injuries, sickness and fatigue. One was suffering from a knee injury, another had just completed the night shift, and the third was recovering from an illness and had just finished his shift at 1 a.m., the morning of.

“That’s the kind of dedication we have here,” Staley said.

People who were once the receivers of Santa Cops become the givers.

Dawn Johnsen, an event coordinator, said people often hand her money when she is shopping for Santa Cops in Wal-Mart.

People are a “huge support,” she said.

He deposited stuffed animal after stuffed animal into little children’s beaming faces. Their lips cracked to show their toothy smiles and their parents were all thank yous.

Staley said it was nice to bring happiness for a change, as he generally gets an icy reception from people as a police officer.

Staff writer Natasha Pepperl can be reached at

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