The visit by Santa — played by police Chief Gary Hampton — to two special-needs classes for local children was courtesy of members of the Tracy Police Department, led by Volunteers in Police Services member Tony Fontana.
Fontana has made it a point during each of the past four years to gather up several officers and volunteers to visit the 25 severely disabled students at Christmastime with Santa and McGruff the Crime Dog.
“To me it’s very emotional,” said Fontana, who purchases gifts for all of the children. “What is the effort to put a smile on a kids’ face, even if it’s just an hour?”
As Santa entered the kindergarten to fourth grade classroom at Questa on Thursday, the children were all smiles, some bouncing in their seats with excitement.
“It’s indescribable, definitely heartfelt,” said Renee Greiner, Laynie’s mother. “You can see the joy in the police officers’ faces, and the kids are in heaven.”
Santa took a seat in the front of the classroom as the children jingled their bell instruments to the tune of “Must Be Santa” and their parents and school staff sang.
“I think it’s neat,” said Maria Panetta, whose 9-year-old daughter, Valeria, was among the students. “It shows they are like other kids, and I think that’s important. It puts smiles on their faces. They look forward to it.”
After the song, Santa handed out presents to each child in turn, delighting the boys and girls as he helped them pull off the wrapping paper to reveal a toy.
Accompanying the group for the first time was officer Vince Weyant, who said the experience was heartwarming.
“These kids get a raw deal in life, and I’m doing my part to share some joy with them,” he said. “I think it’s great. You see the kids’ smiles — it’s what Christmas is all about.”
Teacher Olga Cerna said she seeks out Fontana to make the party possible every year.
“It’s great that there is someone there that actually considers our kids and knows they’re there,” she said. “I have great parents and they really love him. It’s someone who is willing to visit their kiddos and have private time with them.”
After Santa visited the younger children, he went across the school to have a party with the fifth- through eighth-graders in the program.
Kristi Gong, their teacher, said her class had been anticipating the visit for days.
Excited to see Santa, 10-year-old Manny Schopf seemed to be even more excited to see the police visitors, shouting “Officer, officer” as they entered the room.
“I’m here for Manny,” said officer Octavio Lopez, who has been a favorite of the boy since the first Christmas party four years ago.
The pair went around the room together, greeting the other officers and volunteers.
With tears in his eyes, Fontana stood back and watched as the children celebrated.
“If we can just go out there for an hour and let them forget their troubles — I’m doing it to bring a little joy into a kid’s life,” he said. “I’ll do it again next year and the year after that, as long as I keep going.”
• Contact Denise Ellen Rizzo at 830-4225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.