SCHENECTADY — With sirens and lights blaring, the convoy turned onto Schenectady Street and cruised to a stop.
The team’s actions were synchronized.
Within moments, a half-dozen people entered COCOA House and emerged with an armful of bicycles.
Volunteers spilled out of a school bus with large black plastic bags stuffed with toys.
And police cruisers parked at each side of the street, lights swirling.
A man emerged from his home and lit a smoke.
“What the h—?” he said.
The Christmas Eve event had the optics of a police raid paired with the good-natured humor of a flash mob.
Photos by Peter Barber/Gazette Photographer
Save Our Streets’ “Random Santa Drop Off” is neither, but rather an annual holiday event designed to hand out free gifts and spread cheer in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.
“We just drive around the most distressed neighborhoods and give away Christmas gifts,” said Save Our Streets founder William Rivas.
Volunteers moved up the street with swift precision, handing out toys, bikes — even Domino’s Pizza, 120 of them spread between six locations — to people as they gradually emerged from their homes.
One kid danced with excitement and kept slipping on the ice.
He fell down, got up again and kept dancing. The Domino’s Pizza mascot danced. The Christmas Moose danced. Everyone seemed to be dancing.
Four kids tumbled out of a house, one after another, rubbing their eyes.
Each got a gift and a slice of pizza.
Save Our Streets, a grassroots group designed to empower inner-city communities, paired with the Schenectady Police Department and scores of volunteers to add a dose of holiday spirit across the city. Donated gifts are divvied out to families with young children.
The group started the morning at Joseph L. Allen Apartments.
A woman told Rivas she had a 13-year-old.
“It’s a hard age to shop,” said Rivas, who disappeared into the bus and emerged with an electronic game.
“Every year, they’re wonderful,” said the woman.
Across Albany Street, Union College President Dave Harris exited Wingate.
“It’s great because a lot of kids don’t know it’s coming,” Harris later said. “You knock on the door and bam, there’s presents.”
Spontaneity, Rivas said, is part of the charm, and why they don’t require people to register or sign up.
“We bring it anyway,” he said.
Gifts and goodwill were also distributed to random passersby encountered on the street — and vice-versa.
“Will, baby, I love you,” yelled a woman from a passing vehicle.
Each year, anywhere from six to 11 Schenectady police officers participate, said Sgt. Matt Dearing, who took part with Sgt. Nick Mannix and Lt. Ryan Macherone, among other officers — including a K-9 who barked along to the festivities.
Families later gathered in the lobby of the Boys & Girls Club in Mont Pleasant and cheered the convoy, which included a funeral home van and a Domino’s delivery vehicle, as it chugged into the parking lot.
“This is my favorite thing to do all year,” said volunteer Tyrell Outlaw, who is pals with Rivas.
“I love the kids and getting my kids involved.”
Outlaw said he knows from firsthand experience the pain of being unable to provide for your children during the holidays.
“It makes me feel good knowing that one more kid will have a gift under the tree,” he said.
A man came in and rattled off the ages of his four children, from toddlers to a teenager, to Outlaw, who disappeared into the pizza-eating (and dancing) scrum to find suitable selections.
Shana Sanchez attended with two of her three sons: Daibeon, 9, and DJ, who is 4.
DJ clutched a toy train, while his older brother received a football. The older boy grew wide-eyed when told about the gleaming new basketball court in the next room.
“We needed help on the holidays, so we came here,” said Sanchez, who lives on Santa Fe Street.
She gazed at the volunteers.
“I think their energy is amazing,” she said.
Rivas hoped to reach 1,000 people between Schenectady and Albany on Tuesday.
This year’s trip also included Yates Village and Steinmetz Homes, where volunteers loaded with bicycles and pizza ventured down corridors and up stairwells.
“I’m very strategic on the stops we pick,” Rivas said.
Dozens gathered, grinning as they live-streamed the stop on social media.
“This is so cute,” a woman chanted as she circled the parking lot.
Eventually, the convoy pulled up to Proctors in downtown Schenectady, where a jumble of kids fell upon the group.
“I got Avengers, I got Elsa,” said DJ Ketchup, handing out books.
The kids swarmed and he disappeared under them.