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Deputies bring holiday cheer to kids in crisis
Squeals of delight shot up Thursday afternoon when a bussed-in crowd of children from the Children's Crisis Center first spotted Santa Claus waving exuberantly from the top of an approaching black SWAT truck. The jolly Santa hopped out with a big toy sack slung over his shoulder to greet the giggly and wiggly group of 70 and led them into the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department headquarters in Ceres for a memorable visit and presentation of gifts.

The event was the sponsored by members of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Air Support Unit Association. Members initiated the event last year to brighten the holidays for children from families in crisis after learning that the center had no one buying gifts for the children.

The center provides services to about 400 children from throughout the county who are involved in crisis situation at home. The CCC has five sites, including one in Turlock and one in Oakdale. Brenda McDonald, assistant director of the CCC, said children are watched in a number of situations, such as homelessness, the incarceration of a parent or a parents' absence during court-mandated drug or psychiatric treatment, counseling or rehabilitation. Children are referred to the center by Child Protective Services or law enforcement agencies as a way to prevent families from slipping into more tragic situations.

McDonald noted that the 70 recipients were selected on the basis of availability and an assessment of which children would most benefit from the positive Christmas event.

Sheriff Adam Christianson said the event may have been the children's first and only positive seasonal encounter with Christmas.

Deputies engaged in a similar scene Thursday morning when 60 children from the Stanislaus County Sierra Vista Children & Family Services Agency were given gifts.

"Every year we try to make it bigger and bigger," said Steve Hatzigeorgiou, a member of the unit.

Association members were beaming as they doled out the gifts, all made possible from a $10,000 grant from Gary Baird of the Empire Sportsman's Club. Hatzigeorgiou said Walmart provided a substantial discount for the purchase of toys ranging from $30 to $50 apiece. There are enough gifts left over to brighten the holiday of children hospitalized at Modesto area hospitals. Deputies will also be handing out toys to needy children on their beats on Christmas Day, said Lt. Mike Parker.

The Air Support unit consists of three pilots and three tech flight officers, said Parker. Three Modesto Police pilots bring the total number to nine, said Sgt. Ron Haver. Through the use of two Sheriff's helicopter and two fixed-wing aircraft, the Air Support Unit conducts air searches of suspects on the ground. Last summer the unit aided in the quick arrest of two homicide suspects in north Modesto after officers used an infrared camera to detect body heat leaking from the seams of a cardboard box they were hiding in.

The unit is often called out to search for river accident victims as well search and rescue other victims. Parker said that the helicopter crew is able to hover over and pluck victims from ledges and other hard to reach places by sending down a member on a 50- to 200-foot rope. Parker said a helicopter crew recently was able to access a crash victim from the Carnegie Off-Road Park on the west side of the county in five minutes, a feat which would have taken ground crews about 45 minutes.

Tools in the helicopter include a 14 million candlepower search light and day and night infrared cameras which can be broadcast to command centers on the ground.

Due to budget problems, the unit grounded its patrols from the air on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.