Santa's Posse bundles up cheer

Volunteers assemble gifts and food for 550 Clark County families in need

By Paul Suarez, Columbian freelance

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Sometimes Santa needs a little help. That's when his "posse" comes into play.

Volunteers from the community, Clark County Sheriff's Office and Fire District 6 -- aka Santa's Posse -- gathered at a shuttered Best Buy in Hazel Dell on Thursday night to wrap presents and prepare boxes of food and personal items for about 550 needy families around Clark County.

Those boxes and presents end up helping provide for about 1,800 kids, hundreds under the age of 5, said sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Allais, who has coordinated the drive for the past six years.

The drive is a bit more upbeat than Allais's day job: supervising the sheriff's Major Crimes Unit. When asking him about major players, he rattles off a list including Portland's Jesuit High School alumni, Waste Connections, Kewit Infrastructure, several local schools, local Rotary clubs and others.

"It makes Christmas for me," he said of people's generosity. "It's just wonderful that people are giving back."

Brian and Linda Stansberry were two of the dozens of volunteers that flocked to the former Hazel Dell Best Buy on Thursday night. The couple heard about the event through their granddaughter's soccer team, which volunteered at the event. They couldn't pass up the opportunity to help.

"We said, 'We're all in,'" Brian said. He and his wife made a night out of the event, driving down from their home near Hockinson.

"You always wonder what you can do to help, and this is a perfect opportunity for us," he said.

They wrapped presents with their son's family at one of many tables spread out across the empty store.

Nearby other volunteers sorted wrapped presents into groups by age and gender so other volunteers could get the right present for kids in individual families. On the other side of the space, volunteers from Clark County Fire District 6 assembled boxes into a mountain. They would soon be filled with onions, potatoes, oranges, cabbage, squash, packaged food, canned meats, tooth paste and a $10 coupon to buy a ham or turkey at Winco.

Leah Lothspeich said the drive is something she never gave up after leaving District 6 a few years back.

"It gives you a great feeling to be able to help," she said.

Shelly Palmer of Vancouver Sunrise Rotary has been with the posse since it started in 1997. In its first year, the group helped 43 families. The goal was to increase positive interaction between law enforcement and families, according to the group website, santasposse.com.

Palmer has mixed emotions about the drive's growth over the years.

"It's heartbreaking to see there's that many families in need," she said. "On the other side, we're able to help those families."

She said 2012 is one of the best years in recent memory for the group. She thinks it may be because the economy is looking up.

"I think people are starting to feel a little better about what they can do," she said.

Families are selected through local school districts, charities, Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Corrections.

Volunteers will deliver packages and presents Sunday morning.

Paul Suarez: 360-735-4522; http://www.twitter.com/col_cops; paul.suarez@columbian.com.