PBA, Red Bulls share holiday spirit

By Kevin Canessa Jr. 

Observer correspondent 

HARRISON – 

Unfortunately, 2014 won’t go down as a banner year for law enforcement. Far too often, the women and men who put their lives on the line on a daily basis were negatively portrayed because of the bad actions of a select few.

But as this year comes to an end, we’re delighted to bring you a police-related story that is a reminder that here in West Hudson, we’re very lucky to have the police we have.

Enter Harrison Police Department Patrolman Allan Ford. He’s been on the job for 13 years — the last eight with the Harrison Police Department and before that, he spent five years as a Hudson County Sheriff’s officer.

He and Lt. Mike Daggett, Sgt. Dave Strumolo, Detective Charlie Schimpf, Patrolman Daniel McChesney and the department’s two PBA unions have, in one form or another, taken part in the Christmas Angels program, one designed to ensure less fortunate children of all ages are able to experience a holiday that might have otherwise been not so memorable.

The two PBAs first offered the Christmas Angels program back in 1996. And in the 18 years since it kicked off, it’s evolved significantly, according to Ford. And the evolution has all been for the better.

In the early years, the program was open to any of the town’s children, regardless of whether there was a need. And while it was certainly successful right from the get-go, Ford says he envisioned something more — something quite significant.

“Initially, when the program was open to any of the town’s children, it certainly served its purpose,” Ford said. “But the truth is, a program like this is better suited when the toys and presents are given to the people who are most in need, who might otherwise not have a Christmas. And so changes have been made over the years to get to where we are now.”

The first year he was on the job in Harrison, Ford immediately got involved. But he wasn’t satisfied with a supporting role — he wanted to do much more. So he asked if he could play Santa the following year, and seven years later, he’s still doing just that.

“I wound up spending around $700 for the Santa costume,” Ford said. “I always enjoy seeing the reaction of the kids when they’re given presents. Sometimes, they’re afraid of me — but most of the time, they understand it.”

A few years after Ford began playing Santa, the core guys involved in the program revamped it entirely. The presents had been given out at the Harrison Community Center — but that space just wasn’t big enough.

“So everything moved to the LCC (Lithuanian Catholic Community Club) in Kearny,” he said. “And they’ve been just wonderful to us.”

And the method of deciding who gets presents also changed.

Instead of the program being open to everyone, the guys decided to get the local schools and child-care centers involved. At the schools, guidance counselors were asked to come up with a list of the families that would most benefit from the Christmas Angels.

“And now, this year, we had 30 or so families involved,” Ford said. “It was wonderful.”

Each of the families were invited to the LCC for a Breakfast With Santa just before Christmas. Youngsters received toys and gifts and families were given Walmart gift cards to satisfy needs such as clothing or food.

The gift cards were made possible by a generous cash donation from the Red Bulls’ supporters, the Viking Army. They’ve donated over the last three years — and this year handed over a check for $1,000 for the cards.

But the generosity goes even beyond this.

One person donated $500 to cover the entire cost of the food for the Breakfast With Santa. Pechter’s Bakery donated all of the bread needed for the breakfast. The 50/50 winner, a member of the department, donated $200 of his $1,200 winnings toward the breakfast.

We could go on forever here.

But are you seeing the bigger picture here?

Here’s a group of dedicated people. They each put their lives on the line every time they put on their uniform. But they also take pains to ensure that kids have memorable holidays instead of holidays that cause anything but joy.

It’s one of the many reasons why Carol Manley and her husband, Danny, are involved in the program. And for those who know Manley, no, it’s not just because Ford is her son-in-law either. “

Allan is such a special guy,” Manley said. “And with there being so much negativity out there about cops of late, I really think it’s important that these guys’ stories are told. They all have their own families. They all have their own lives. And what they do is just inspiring.”

It all reminded Manley of an incident that happened with her son-in-law a few Christmases ago. The family was all gathered at Manley’s brother’s place in Freehold. Ford got a call from a fellow cop.

It was a domestic-violence case — and in the course of the investigation, the officer noted there was no Christmas tree. There were no toys for the kids. Instead, they were playing “hockey” with pencils, erasers and paper.

The officer asked Ford if he’d put on the costume and head over to that location with some gifts for the kids.

And despite being away — and smack in the middle of his own holiday celebration with his family — that’s exactly what Ford did. Drove north from Freehold to get the costume, picked up a bunch of unused gifts (mind you this was after Breakfast With Santa) and those kids, who otherwise wouldn’t have had a Christmas, instead had one they’d never, ever forget.

“At first they were scared of me as Santa,” Ford said. “Once they realized what was going on, though, it was much better. To see the joy and happiness this brought to them — unbelievable. This is what it’s all about. This is why we do what we do. This makes it all worth the hard work that goes into the preparation process.

“This is the true meaning of Christmas.”

The Observer Staff