The holidays aren’t always a time of celebration for some families that can’t afford food, let alone gifts.
Counties across the state step up each year to assist families in need through Brown Santa programs organized by county sheriff's offices. Deputies and their families often distribute wrapped toys, food and household items door to door with hopes of making the holiday season a little easier for struggling families.
“It’s that bridge between police and the community,” said Louis Moncivais, a senior deputy with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office who oversees the program with his wife, Rebecca. “Deliveries are a positive time because sheriffs are in uniform, and people can see police in a happy time. They are getting to interact with officers in a positive way.”
Travis County has operated a Brown Santa program since 1981. Private donations and toy drives hosted by local companies help pay for Travis County Brown Santa gifts, which helped more than 8,000 people last year.
Moncivais said that a favorite part of the program is joining about 1,200 volunteers (2,400 in a non-COVID year) in the warehouse to wrap gifts as Christmas music plays in the background. “It’s like Santa’s workshop,” he said.
In Milam County, planning for the Brown Santa program starts in July. An annual golf tournament — which was renamed after former Sheriff David Greene, who started the holiday program 11 years ago and passed away in 2018 — helps fund the bulk of the initiative each year.
“Every July, we have a great turnout for the tournament. Not everyone knows how to play golf, but they know how to participate. It shows in the amount of money we collect and the gifts we receive,” said Milam County Chief Deputy John Mendoza, who now oversees the program.
Hays County’s Brown Santa Program has been around since the late 1980s, and some former recipients have now turned into volunteers, Hays County Lt. Dennis Gutierrez said.
“Seven years ago, we had a family come in, and the mother had tears in her eyes during the wrapping party,” he said. “She said, ‘You guys have helped us the last five years, and now we have good jobs, so we are going to help other families this year like you guys do.’ They are there every year now.”
Another year, a boy brought his birthday gifts to donate, so other children could have something special for the holidays. Now, he asks for money for his birthday every year to give to the program.
“To see the community impact is incredible,” Gutierrez said. “We have college kids who return to volunteer because they have been helping with the program since they were kids.”
Lavaca County calls its program Deputy Santa. Operating for three decades, the program aids the elderly with purchasing food, paying for electric bills and connecting them with services they might need.
“Any money that we receive is all given back out and is not kept from year to year,” said Lavaca County Chief Deputy JR Peters.
Running a Brown Santa program is a lofty undertaking. Officials must find volunteers to assist with gift purchasing and wrapping. They must find ways to generate enough money and toy donations. They sift through family applications for the program, and, finally, deliver the gifts.
Each sheriff’s official said the reward is seeing the faces of the families who will have a better holiday season thanks to the efforts of their county.
“This is part of our role when we say we’re here to protect and serve,” Gutierrez said. “It feels good to have an impact on these families’ lives.”