For 26 years, the Gulfport Police Department has sponsored Operation Santa, which is primarily for local children ages 10 and under.
But, “no child is ever left out. We have never turned anyone away,” said Francine Whitten, volunteer head elf. She’s been leading the program since it began. Children older than 10 receive gifts like body wash “so they have something to open under the tree.”
And, she gets help from local teenagers who belong to the Police Explorer and Teen Council groups along with her daughter and granddaughter. They help her to sort donations and shop for age-appropriate gifts.
“I ask them, ‘What would you want?’ Then they pick and it really helps,” she said.
The program is seeking cash donations from individuals or groups along with new unwrapped toys, she said.
Donations can be made up to Christmas by stopping by the police station in City Hall, 2401 53rd Street S., Gulfport, between 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. If City Hall is closed, “pick up the phone outside the front doors and an officer will be sent out,” she said.
Gulfport Neighbors will also be collecting toys, monetary and giftcard donations for Operation Santa at their booth at Holiday Hoopla in downtown Gulfport this Saturday, December 9. They have set a goal of reaching $1500 for the cause.
For people wanting help from the program, call the Operation Santa hotline 727-893-1097.
Families are also found through police officer and firefighter referrals, said Police Chief Robert Vincent. “The neediest people are the ones who do not sign up.”
Whitten works with adults to make arrangements for toy pick up or delivery. If unwrapped toys are picked up at the police station, wrapping paper is provided.