Forget the reindeer and the sleigh. On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus came to town on a 30-foot fire engine.
For the third year running, members of the Cortez Fire District set aside time to bring holiday cheer to a handful of area families. With Santa along for the ride, the firefighters delivered ready-to-eat meals and sacks full of gifts to nearly a dozen homes Monday.
It works like this. Firefighters in the department can choose to have a certain amount - normally $5 or $10 - deducted from their paychecks every two weeks and funneled into a special account. Come December, the nest egg is tapped to purchase several thousand dollars worth of food and toys - this year, $2,600, spread across 11 families with 27 children.
The two-hour delivery run stretched from Lakeside Trailer Park near Totten Reservoir to the western outskirts of Cortez, and the entourage included no less than four CFD vehicles. Santa's unexpected mode of transport made for some astonished young faces at the windows.
"It was great. You could see (the kids) light up when the trucks pulled up and Santa climbed out. All the families were extremely appreciative," said assistant fire chief Charles Balke.
The two large grocery chains in town were called upon as well. Firefighters bought pre-prepared, all-inclusive dinners - "from the turkey to the pie" - from Safeway, and $35 gift cards for each family from City Market.
The fire department coordinates with Piñon Project Family Center and the Salvation Army to select recipient families based on severity of need.
"We use (those organizations) as resources to gather background information - monthly bills, regular income, and so on - and get us the names and wish lists, including sizes for clothing items," said Chad Daniels, the self-effacing ringleader of the operation. It was Daniels who revived the project in 2010 after a long hiatus and continues to spearhead it today, but he deflects any special credit.
"This isn't my project. This is the Cortez Fire Department's project," Daniels said. "Its just guys trying to give back to their community and help needy folks. It was a old tradition that had fallen by the wayside."
The impetus for resurrecting it was the district's transition from an all-volunteer force to a combination of volunteers and paid personnel, beginning in October 2008.
Taking advantage of the 20 percent discount offered by Walmart manager Ron Knezek, Daniels and his wife Jessie completed all the shopping in one grueling day at the retail behemoth last week.
"It was five hours of pure misery. If you're not a fan of shopping, it's tough," Daniels said, laughing.
"Knowing what joy you're bringing those kids makes up for it," Jessie quickly added.