BLACKFOOT – It’s the time of year when Bingham County’s emergency personnel begin their annual drive to raise funds for the Santa’s Helpers program, a charitable operation of the sheriff’s office to provide Christmas for local families who might otherwise not have one.
Fundraising efforts kick off Thursday evening at Rupe’s Burgers, where off-duty officers from county law enforcement will be taking orders and waiting tables to raise money for the program between the hours of 5:30-9 p.m.
There will be three officers from the sheriff’s office, three from the Blackfoot Police Department, and three 911 dispatchers as well as some supervisory personnel from each department waiting and busing tables and car hopping.
The Santa’s Helpers program was organized 28 years ago by Erin Hidalgo, now 911 dispatch supervisor for the county, who coordinates the program and has always had a soft spot for children.
“I was a dispatcher at the Fort Hall Police Department before I came to Bingham County,” Hidalgo said. “There our officers took part in Bannock County’s Shop With a Cop program. I asked why we didn’t do that here, and they said Pocatello was too far away, so I decided we should have our own program, but we couldn’t call it Shop With a Cop, so we chose to be Santa’s Helpers.”
In addition to helping needy families, Hidalgo said, her goal was to show children that police officers are not someone they should be afraid of.
“Dispatchers used to wear police uniforms back then,” she said, “and I noticed whenever I picked up my child from day care the other kids ran away. When I asked why, I was told because they’re afraid of cops. I thought it would be a way of showing children that cops should be looked on as friends -- someone they can turn to for help when they need it.”
It was too late to do much the first year except have a toy drive, she said, but they got down to business the following year, and the program has been growing every year since.
“We started out with 19 families,” Hidalgo said, “and now we take 50 children shopping, and do the shopping ourselves for 50 to 100 families. And people have been so generous we usually have $5,000 to $7,000 to spend on Christmas now,” Hidalgo said.
She said they approached Kevin Rupe, owner of Rupe’s Burgers, nine years ago about helping with the program and, ever ready to support the community, he agreed to let them hold a fundraiser at his business. Not only that, he volunteered a percentage of the proceeds for those hours. Any tips the wait staff gets Thursday evening is considered a donation to the program.
“We usually get a lot of people out that night because our community is so supportive, but also I think some people get a kick out being waited on by a cop,” Hidalgo laughed.
The sheriff’s office receives a list of needy families from elementary schools in each of the school districts in the county, Hidalgo said, and families apply at the local SEICAA office for the program. However, she said, they start taking applications at the end of October and by now have reached their quota, so the application period is closed. When they’re available, officers from Shelley and Aberdeen also become Santa’s Helpers for a day, as well as some from the fire departments.
On the Saturday before Christmas, the children selected from the list arrive at the Blackfoot Elks Lodge for breakfast with their Santa’s Helper, then caravan to Walmart to do their shopping. When shopping is over they return to the Elks Lodge where volunteers help wrap their gifts. When that’s done they get a visit from Santa, who hands each child a gift that’s been purchased especially for them.
The staff at the county jail will be preparing breakfast for the program this year and taking the food to the Elks Lodge to be served.
They can only take 50 children shopping because that’s the largest number of off-duty emergency personnel available at one time, Hidalgo said, so in their “spare” time, she and the rest of the Santa’s Helpers Committee do the shopping and wrapping of gifts for the extra 50-100 families that are delivered to the homes on Christmas Eve by “Santa Cops.”