LONGVIEW — Red and blue lights flashed as a Vancouver police officer announced over his patrol car’s speaker that police were outside. But the Hale children weren’t under arrest. They were encouraged to come to the door “with excitement and smiles on their faces” for a special Christmas surprise.
Unbeknownst to Annabelle, 6, and Sawyer, 4, a dozen people had stealthily carried armfuls of presents to their front door Friday evening, placing the neatly wrapped packages along the walkway.
The kids looked stunned as they took in the scene. Their shock didn’t last long, though, as they began grabbing at presents left and right.
“Thanks!” Sawyer yelled to the small crowd gathered on the sidewalk.
“This one is yours! Open it!” he exclaimed.
The surprise gift drop, organized by Vancouver Police Department Detectives Tanya Wollstein and Andy Dunbar, was decidedly a success.
“When you’re able to provide that day, that moment for them, and see that excitement and happiness on that kiddo’s face, that is unmatched,” Dunbar said in a phone interview before the gift drop. “There is no greater time than to see that.”
For the last few years, whatever squad the two detectives are on, they select a family — usually a family that has had an impact on them — to show them they have support, not just from Vancouver police but the community.
“We want to help them have a better Christmas than what they might have had,” Wollstein said in a phone interview. “It’s my favorite day of the year, every year, hands down.”
This year, they selected a family particularly close to home.
The detectives and the children’s mom, Lindsay Hale, a victim advocate with the county, work in the Domestic Violence Prosecution Center — a collaborative workspace that includes county and city prosecutors, victim advocates, law enforcement and support staff.
Lindsay Hale’s husband, Kevin, was diagnosed with Stage 4 adrenal cancer in September.
“It means a lot. We’re going through a really stressful time with everything going on — to step back and focus on chemo and trying to stay healthy and less stress, which is what I need in my life right now. For them to step up and do this is pretty amazing,” Kevin Hale, 41, said in a phone interview before the gift drop.
Dunbar said they work with the family to determine their needs.
The detectives quickly learned they could expand their impact by working with community partners, such as major retail stores.
“There have been a lot of people who rose to the calling,” Dunbar said. “This year, in particular, there have been a lot of people who have been super, super generous.”
Among those who participated are: Grand Central Fred Meyer, Macy’s at Vancouver Mall, Walmart in east Vancouver, the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the Vancouver City Attorney’s Office and those who work with our around the domestic violence unit.
“For someone like Lindsay who goes out there every day and serves the community and vulnerable victims, we want her to know that we as a community appreciate that and want to give back to her,” Wollstein said. “I just want her to know that. This is a great opportunity to reinforce that in her mind so she can keep fighting for Kevin.”
Lindsay Hale, 35, said she knew about the detectives’ annual holiday surprise from past years.
“I never expected it to be me or anyone in our own unit, to be honest with you,” Lindsay Hale said of her family being chosen. “It took me by surprise and created a lot of emotions. It’s kind of hard to explain. Naturally, there are a lot of happy and positive emotions for a family being gifted such an amazing gesture, but it is also difficult to accept such an amazing gesture. It’s a very humbling experience.”
Her husband was first diagnosed in July 2019 after he had a tumor removed. At the time, they didn’t know it was cancer. Lindsay Hale said they were told it was fine because the cancerous tumor had been removed. Kevin Hale would need quarterly scans to keep an eye on things; there were no significant concerns the cancer had spread, she said.
But on Sept. 17, they learned the adrenal cancer had spread to his lungs — Stage 2 to Stage 4 in about a year’s time.
Lindsay Hale shared the devastating news with her work unit the same day. Her co-workers’ love and support have been immeasurable.
“The text messages in the morning just to see how we’re doing, it’s genuine concern and care for everything. I could not ask for a better team to work with,” Lindsay Hale said through tears.
In addition to saving Christmas, her co-workers have done meal trains for the family during chemotherapy weeks.
“We are inherently aware that the prognosis for Stage 4 (cancer) is bleak, but we have chosen not to receive the overall prognosis. We don’t want Kevin to be placed in a box, to be a statistic,” Lindsay Hale said. “Knowing about a grim prognosis would be more grim than beneficial.”
The family’s medical insurance does not permit out-of-network referrals. That means they will pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket for additional consultations and treatment. They’ve already traveled to Seattle to get a second opinion, and Lindsay Hale said she is always looking at alternatives — calling research facilities and cancer institutes.
In the meantime, Kevin Hale is undergoing 28-day cycles of chemotherapy.
For Christmas, he said he simply wants to see his children’s smiling faces and spend as much time as possible with his family.
“It’s supposed to be a happy time of year — try to get away from the thoughts of everything else for a few days, share the love and excitement of Christmas, try to get rid of that stress and be a part of family and all that good stuff,” he said.
Lindsay Hale’s wish for Christmas is for her children to have their dad for another 30 years.
“For them to have someone to attend their graduation; coach baseball, Little League, and watch them in the stands as (they) get their first grand slam; be there at the birth of their first kid,” she said. “I’m asking for a lot for such a rare cancer, but that’s what I want, that’s what I need for my family.”