TURLOCK — Santa got a little help over the weekend from Patterson firefighters and Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies.
A jovial crew of shoppers in uniform descended on the Turlock Target on Sunday morning, armed with amounts to spend and age ranges to buy for.
Their mission: Bring a spot of Christmas joy to some 700 Patterson children.
The number is roughly double last year's number, made possible by a donation from Bette Belle Smith before her death, said organizer Travis Nuckolls Sr. The Lions and Rotary clubs of Patterson also contributed, he said, and firefighters "reached into their own pockets."
"It's hard times right now, and I'm lucky enough to have a couple of jobs," firefighter Danny Silva said as he shopped for boys and girls ages 10 to 12. "This is a way of giving back."
Firefighter Nick Jamieson checked with Nuckolls' 6-year-old daughter, Lindsey, about what to get girls in her age group. "Boys were easy. We just picked what we liked," Jamieson said.
Firefighter Sal Reynoso teamed up with his son Isael, 10. "He wanted to come. He got all excited," Reynoso said.
In the toy section, clumps of blue uniform shirts huddled over rapidly filling carts in two aisles, and one aisle over, black-shirted officers from the Sheriff's Department conferred about what to give infants and toddlers.
School resource officer Adrian Carrillo and deputy Wagner de Freitas said they were happy to pitch in. They piled soccer balls into their cart, counting down their $300 budget for kids up to 3 years old.
The street crimes unit in Patterson also participated. "It's great to be a part of this, buying toys for kids that don't typically have much," said Detective Troy Silcox. The father of a 3-year-old and 2-month-old twins, Silcox was sought after for buying advice from bachelors in the group.
The store's toy aisles bulged with volunteers and holiday shoppers for nearly an hour. Under swaying decorations of foil ornaments and snowflakes came a steady babble of earnest voices: "You think Nerf guns are safer than Mousetrap?" "We need more fairies. Fairies are really big this year." "Get the shiny one." "Geez, a 'lingerie Barbie'?" "No! Really?"
Conversation mixed with the throaty roars of an animatronic dinosaur, burbles of motion-activated baby dolls and, from the G.I. Joe section, "Guards! We're under attack!" and "Lock 'n' load!"
Then it was off to Stacey Murata's checkstand to tally up the total.
"We will be shame-faced if we go over budget," joked Patterson City Councilwoman Annette Smith as she loaded her cart's contents onto the conveyor belt.
Smith said the need for toy drives is growing, noting the city has a 21 percent unemployment rate. She got involved with the toy drive after firefighters helped her fulfill the wish of a 5-year-old last year. "He needed lots of things, shoes, a coat. ... But he wanted a Christmas tree. He'd never had one," she said.
Smith said she asked the Fire Department for help and they amazed her. "They took the fully decorated tree right out of the station. ... Loaded it on the antique firetruck and took it," she said, wiping away tears at the memory. "We as a city could not exist without all the things our firefighters do — all year long."
The final figure Sunday was $1,842.87. A gift card donated by Target took $75 off the top. Cart after cart filled with bags was wheeled out to a waiting box truck, on loan for the day.
Sunday's shopping trip brought in about one-third of the toys that will be handed out. The rest are being donated and coming from the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots drive.
Tuesday, city officials and firefighters will distribute the toys to families and let parents take the credit on Christmas morning.
The drive was the second organized by Nuckolls, who volunteers for the Patterson department and works as a fire captain in South San Francisco. He also organizes a toy drive for that Bay Area department, said his wife, Rebekah Nuckolls of Patterson.
"He just loves doing this," she said. "He wants to help, to make a difference."