Chris and Lisa Albright put children’s gifts in a box set up by the Dunwoody Police Department at the Light Up Dunwoody event on Nov. 24.

Back in 2009, during the Dunwoody police department’s first year of operation, Sgt. Fidel Espinoza saw a need in the young city.

“When we first started, we realized there’s a big difference between our affluent side of town and our less fortunate side of town,” Espinoza said.

He had an idea. As the holidays approached, the police department would pull together local businesses, church groups and other volunteers, and throw a party for kids from the less affluent side of town. They would play Santa and distribute presents to families in need.

“What better way to tie the two parts of the community together?” he asked.

The department started a program called Christmas For Kids. It collected toys and threw a party for children from the city’s poorer apartment complexes.

“It just seemed the right thing to do. It made sense,” Espinoza said. “The need was apparent.”

And, it worked. The program caught on and is still going.

Collection points for donated toys

In Atlanta, the Police Athletic League collects unwrapped toys for children aged 8 to 18 for Toys for Tots. In Buckhead, toys may be dropped off at the Zone 2 Precinct, 3120 Maple Drive.

In Dunwoody, the city police department’s Christmas For Kids program collects new and unwrapped gifts for children newborn to age 15. Police will collect gifts in the lobby of police headquarters, 41 Perimeter Center East, through Dec. 23.

Other Dunwoody drop-off locations: Another Broken Egg Café; Crossroads Church of Dunwoody; Cutie Pies Children’s Boutique; CVS Pharmacy; Dentistry with a Difference; Dunwoody Elementary School; Dunwoody Nature Center; Fidelity Bank; Kingsley Charter Elementary School; Mellow Mushroom Pizza; Nancy’s Hallmark; North Atlanta Memorial Park; Peachtree Charter Middle School; Picayune Toys; Starbucks (at Ravinia); Tilted Kilt; Vanderlyn Elementary School.

In Sandy Springs, firefighters collect unwrapped toys for children aged 3 to 12 for the North Perimeter Optimist Club’s Children’s Holiday Party. Donations are accepted through Dec. 12 at the city’s four fire stations. Stations are located at 1425 Spalding Drive, 139 Johnson Ferry Road, 6025 Raiders Drive and 4697 Wieuca Road.

Each year since that first one, the department has collected toys for distribution in December to children in the less affluent areas of the city. The police throw a holiday party, complete with Santa, for about 60 people. This year, Dunwoody police plan to host their fifth Christmas For Kids party.

“One thing that really stands out about the Dunwoody Police Department is the first line in our mission statement – we will engage the community,” Espinoza said.

But the Dunwoody department isn’t the only group of first responders organizing holiday gift giveaways.

In Sandy Springs, the city’s firefighters gather toys for the North Perimeter Optimist Club’s annual holiday toy drive. In Atlanta, the Police Athletic League sets up Toys for Tots collection boxes in each of the city’s precincts. And in Brookhaven, the spokesman for the city’s new police department said police there don’t have anything going this year, but could organize a gift-collection program by next Christmas.

“It’s in our nature,” Espinoza said. “Police departments, fire departments – it’s something innate. Throughout the year, we deal with the ugly side of people. Doing something like this – these warm and fuzzies – it’s good for our police spirit.

“We call Chrismas For Kids our jewel. Doing things like this is a positive.”

Elizabeth Stell, executive assistant to Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan, said the program focuses on gifts for children and their families, but it also gives something back to the officers.

“It’s a big morale boost,” she said. “Our officers get something out of it, just like the community. It’s fun for them.”

Sandy Springs firefighters took over a toy-collection program that was in place when the city’s department started. The collections were begun by firefighters with the Fulton County department that preceded the city.

Fire Chief Jack McElfish said the department usually takes in 250 to 300 toys each year. Firefighters themselves distribute any toys that come in after the deadline for the Optimist Club’s party. And the officers enjoy showing up in their emergency vehicles, lights flashing, and handing out toys, he said.

“Whenever they do it, they call me and say, ‘You won’t believe this!’” he said. “It makes them appreciate what they have, and they just appreciate seeing the kids and seeing the parents when they receive the items.”

In Dunwoody, Espinoza said police keep their annual holiday party quiet to avoid any embarrassment the families might feel. “This is a private and intimate affair,” he said.

But the annual gift-wrapping party, planned this year for Dec. 14, has itself turned into a holiday event for volunteers from local churches and businesses, Dunwoody police said.

Espinoza’s not surprised Christmas For Kids has caught on in Dunwoody.

“One side of town had not so much and the other side of town with plenty and willing to give,” he said. “It seemed to make sense.”

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.