Bringing Christmas spirit to children in need

There were 31 children inside the Morrow Elementary School cafeteria, running around happily, opening their presents, sharing with their families, and eating a favorite food –– pizza.

From the looks on the children's faces and the happiness in their voices, it would be hard to tell that their families might be among those struggling this holiday season because of the severe downtown in the economy nationwide.

Members of the Morrow Police Department watched the children, with joy on their faces, as the department hosted its annual "Santa's Children Christmas Party" at the school, in Morrow.

The children in attendance included members of the elementary school's student body and their siblings, said Police Chief Jeff Baker. The children were sponsored the Morrow Police Department, the Macy's department store in Morrow, Southlake Mall, and others.

Santa Clause, the star of the show, was on hand for children who wanted to share their Christmas wish lists. "I want the cowboy from the movie ‘Toy Story,'" said 7-year-old Jesus Hurtado, in an excited voice.

Cheyenne Johnson, 11, said she is grateful for the event, and the gifts she received, which included a Bratz doll and a Candyland game. "I am thankful for it," said Johnson. "They're [the police department is] nice enough to do it."

Kasandra Catalan, a shy 8-year-old, was watching Officer Mike Tarticchio, of the Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving (COPPS) Unit of the department, as he helped her open her large present. Catalan's eyes grew wider and wider.

Oscar Catalan, Kasandra Catalan's father, said the event helps his daughter develop socially, and provides her with an activity to do with children her age.

He said his economic situation is difficult and that he is struggling to keep up with the bills to take care of his family, with a job that only pays him $7.50 an hour.

"I've been trying to look for a better job in various places ... " he said in Spanish.

Tiffany Scott, who said she has two children, added that the event will provide them with much-needed Christmas gifts. If this event had not existed, she said, "I would be in line [for] Toys for Tots, trying to see; otherwise, they wouldn't have a Christmas."

Scott said she receives welfare and Medicare, and is struggling financially, living from check, to check. "It's not depressing any more, because I'll be finishing school in two weeks," she said. "But, it's a struggle."

Chief Baker said 31 children were sponsored this year, compared to the 23 that were sponsored last year, and that is an indication of the increased need. "We get sponsors for them," he said. "The [police] department does the majority [however]."

He said each sponsor contributes at least $100 per child. "Some of the officers spent more than that," said Baker, with a smile. He added that all of the department's officers donated to the cause.

In addition to the individual sponsorships of children, there were various other donations made to the department for the event, he said.

Officer Mike Tarticchio said Morrow City Hall donated $300, and the City of Morrow Fire Department donated $600.

"At least $31,000 was invested in this event, because we have 31 children," added Baker. The event has taken place for about nine years, he added.

Baker said the list of children for the event is given to the police department the School Council of Morrow Elementary School.

The list also includes items the children need and want, such as coats, clothes and hygiene products, as well as toys and other gifts, he said.

According to Janice Longhorne, a guidance counselor at Morrow Elementary School, struggling families whose children attend the school, don't need to meet a certain income to participate. This is because some families, who might have been doing well financially a short time ago, experience a change of events in their lives, including layoffs and divorces.