Save Our Streets took to the streets of neighborhoods in Schenectady on Christmas Eve, handing out presents — even free pizza — to whoever would accept holiday generosity, young or old.
The community group teamed up with the Schenectady Police Department and various volunteers for its third annual Christmas Eve Random Santa, in which donated gifts are handed out to families in need with young children, as one might expect, but also to random people encountered on the street.
A ribbon-bedecked school bus provided by Brown Transportation of Amsterdam carried about 40 volunteers, with the younger ones carrying present-stuffed book bags, and older ones and adults shouldering plastic bags stuffed with toys. As the volunteers gathered mid-morning in the icy parking lot of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center, Save Our Streets founder William Rivas exuded a seemingly permanent air of cheery optimism, but said he didn't know how many people would show up.
"Last year we helped 150 families, and I'm pretty sure we'll beat that," Rivas said. "The best part of an SOS event is that you never know who's going to show up."
The bus was escorted by a half-dozen police cars, with the police stopping traffic so the bus could run through red lights and stop signs. A Domino's delivery car that distributed pizza to a random recipient at each stop was also part of the siren and light convoy.
Rivas said Save Our Streets used social media to get out word of where and when the Sunday morning stops would take place, but many of the people offered gifts were surprised. "This is absolutely random," Rivas said beforehand. "Whoever show up actually gets gifts."
At the first stop, at the Joseph L. Allen Apartments on Albany Street, one woman received presents for each of her eight children. At the next stop, downtown, the group led by Rivas spotted a man with a bicycle on the State Street sidewalk across from Proctors, and someone handled the startled man a boxed pizza.
"Who are you guys?" the man asked, in pleased puzzlement.
"Save Our Streets!," Rivas replied, always on the move, turning onto the Jay Street pedestrian mall with his entourage behind.
"Dot.com?" the man called.
"SaveOurStreets.com," came the reply.
On Forest Road in Mont Pleasant, toys were even being offered to passing motorists if they stopped, especially if they reported having a child in the vehicle.
The Police Department's volunteer effort included fielding seven officers, among them Police Chief Eric Clifford and other top brass. Some officers brought their families, and all contributed gifts. Officer Sam Gonzalez, who owns and operates UrbanBox — an online clothing subscription service — donated nearly $1,000 in gifts, said department spokesman Sgt. Matt Dearing.
"Last year was our first year and we had a handful of officers. Obviously, it's grown," Dearing said.
In addition to the stops at Joseph Allen Apartments and downtown, the bus stopped in front of Mont Pleasant Middle School; Brandywine Avenue at Becker Street; and at Jerry Burrell Park. "If we don't give all the gifts away at these stops, we'll just keep going until they're all gone," Rivas primised.
Among the volunteers was Nacier Hundley, the 15-year-old star receiver on this year's championship-caliber Holy Trinity high school football team, who said he was happy to help out.
"I got a lot of support with my football, and I wanted to give something back to the community," said Hundley, The Daily Gazette's Offensive Player of the Year.
Michael Lawton of Schenectady, who works with Rivas at The Altamont Program on Duane Avenue, bought a reindeer costume specially to wear to the event, and he cracked a joyful smile at every opportunity. "This is William's thing," he explained. "It's showing kids that don't have anything that there's Christmas."
Also among the volunteers, for the second year, was state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who contributed a large toy truck.
"This is a wonderful way to spend Christmas Eve and it's wonderful to see people doing things," Santabarbara said.
Even those who declined a gift — whether from bafflement or a feeling other people were more deserving — got a hearty wish from Rivas: "Merry Christmas!"