Alive! photos by Summy Lam and John Burnes, and courtesy Airport Police.
And to All a Good Flight
Airport Police marks five years of giving teddy bears to traveling children at LAX on Christmas morning.
What began as a way to give away surplus gifts has become a Christmas Day tradition for the Airport Police family at LAX.
In 2015, the Los Angeles Airport Police in cooperation with Los Angeles School Police, Los Angeles Port Police, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and the cities of Vernon, Bell, El Monte and Alhambra police Departments collected teddy bears donated by Officers and employees with assistance from Kenner Unlimited, Linzy, Imperial, Los Angeles Airport Police Athletic League and Cal Plush, handed out teddy bears to the children of the pediatric unit of LA/USC Medical Center. At the end, they had extra gifts, and decided to walk the terminals of LAX and hand out the surplus.
Thus was born a Christmas tradition that grows every year, and has become a family experience so dear to the Airport Police that no one who participates ever thinks of taking the special day off.
The Officers and employees of Airport Police fund the purchase of the teddy bears, which now surpasses 1,000. LAX also provides funding.
The Airport Police Officers who began the tradition five years ago continue to organize it today. They are Sgt. Rob Pedregon, Public Information Officer; and Motor Officers Paul Mosqueda and Nick Van Dragt. Santa resembles Steve Van Noord, the uncle of Nick Van Dragt.
“Keeping the traveling public safe and secure is our first priority, and many of us can’t be with our own children on Christmas morning, but to see the happiness that Santa brings to these children fills that empty space till we can make it home to our families,” said Officer Pedregon.
Read all about the tradition in this month’s interview.
A Labor of Love
On Nov. 13, Club COO Robert Larios and Alive! editor interviewed Sgt. Rob Pedregon, Public Information Officer, 11 years of City service, Club Member; Motor Officer Nick Van Dragt, 10 years, Club Member; and Motor Officer Paul Mosqueda, 11 years, Club Member. Stopping by to be a part of the interview was Santa Claus himself, who resembled Steve Van Noord, the uncle of Officer Van Dragt. Steve teaches second grade at Frank Woodruff Elementary School The interview took place at the headquarters of Airport Police at LAX. This will be the fifth year Steve has resembled Santa at LAX on Christmas Day.
Tell us how this beautiful tradition of handing out teddy bears to children traveling on Christmas morning started.
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: Sure. The first year this started – 2015 – the Motor Unit was supporting a charity cause at Children’s Hospital. We all chipped in and bought some teddy bears to give to children there. That was a few days before Christmas. At the end of the event, we had a surplus of teddy bears. I thought, what are we going to do with them? We were all working Christmas Day, and I asked my partner Nick here who’s always a team player. I said, “Would you be willing to dress up as Santa Claus and hand out these teddy bears?
Ofcr. Nick Van Dragt: I said I can do one better – I actually know someone that is Santa and I asked my uncle Steve Van Noord if he would be willing to do it and he said …
Santa (resembling Steve Van Noord): Absolutely! When they asked me to do it, I thought, “That sounds kind of interesting to do that.” The first time we did it, it was a smaller operation than it is now. It’s grown every year. It was so much fun. We did it on Christmas morning, and I was hooked right away. My wife came along with me. My daughter has come a couple of times; my niece Jody has come. I tell you, it’s just been great. I love doing it. It’s become a family tradition for us as well.
And the Christmas beard is coming in very nicely.
Santa (resembling Steve Van Noord): It is!
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: So the Motor officers all pulled together that first year. Paul was there with us at the original event, too, and he’s our sleigh rider – he carries the bears along with us. He follows behind and replenishes our supply.
That first year, it was just overwhelming the number of bears that we had collected from ourselves and from the School Police and some of the agencies that were also participating in that charity event. We ended up with a surplus that the venue couldn’t handle, so they asked us to take them back with us. We had a truck full of bears and headed back to LAX and wondered, “What the heck are we going to do with all these bears?”
It just evolved into, “Hey, let’s try this and do it on Christmas morning.”
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: Yes. We were already getting together with the Officers on Christmas morning at LAX. The wives would come in and bake cookies for all the Officers on patrol who had to work that day, and feed everyone who wasn’t going to be with their families on that morning. We said, “We’ll just head out into the terminal and start handing these out.” We thought we’d get Nick to be Santa but he did one better.
What compelled you to take it to the next step and to do it yourself here at LAX?
Ofcr. Nick Van Dragt: I viewed it as a great opportunity to give back to the community that’s given me so much. I enjoy hanging out with these guys on Christmas Day, and now I get my family involved, which is even better. I couldn’t really pass up that opportunity and it’s just fun to see the kids’ faces when they receive the teddy bear from Santa. They’re just all excited. It takes all the stress of flying away from them, and they’re happy to be able to meet Santa that day.
Santa (resembling Steve Van Noord): I don’t work at the airport, but to come here and see these kids and their reactions to what was really unexpected is just so special. And it extends to the airport employees and the people who work for the airlines, too. “Can I take my picture with you?” they ask me. They’re working on Christmas Day, too, so it’s joy for them, too, but it’s mostly for the kids. Just to see their faces and enjoy their reactions to Santa Claus – they see you in an unexpected place and they’re like, “Whoa.”
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: It started off as this goodwill gesture, and it’s evolved into something even bigger. It’s for all the Officers who work on Christmas morning who aren’t with their own children – the joy of going out there and seeing the smiles on all these children’s faces, the parents, the employees – it really brings you back home. It’s like fulfilling that emotion that you’re lacking all morning.
It’s larger than that, too, for us especially in law enforcement – we’re building partnerships and trust with the community. We’re ambassadors. There are people who come from all over the world, and the interactions that they have with us set the tone for all of law enforcement. We’re working with more than just our own community, we’re working worldwide. For a lot of people who come in contact with Police Officers, it’s a negative situation. It’s either a traffic citation or they’re the victim of a crime. We can take it to a more personal place, show them a human aspect and let them know that we’ree more than just a uniform. We’re people, and we do care.
Right, right. Santa, do you get special ATC clearance on Christmas morning for the sleigh to come in? You’re a busy man on that day!
Santa (resembling Steve Van Noord): Well let’s just say it’s a busy morning!
The first year we did it, I came in a patrol car with two Motorcycle Officers escorting me like reindeer bringing in a sleigh. Since then we’ve been doing it a lot of different ways. It’s unusual because you walk into the airport and then you walk out of the airport – you’re either freezing or super hot, but it’s just a joy to do it the whole time. I meet people from all over the world, including people who speak no English, but they know who Santa Claus is.
How many bears do you expect to give away this Christmas?
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: About 1,100 bears.
Distributed through all the terminals.
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: Right. We start in roll call. We’ll let our partners in roll call know that we’re going to be walking the terminals, and the Officers assigned to those terminals will come down and help as we go through the terminal. They’ll help us distribute the bears. We get volunteers within the Department. They come out with us ever year. And it’s grown from teddy bears – we hand out candy canes and ornaments, too, so even the adults get something. People pose with Santa Claus, so there’s a lot of benefit for everybody, not just the kids.
Who makes sure that there is an ample supply? I know Santa’s bag is very big, but making sure that you keep the supply moving is pretty important.
Ofcr. Paul Mosqueda: Right. I parallel them in the truck outside the terminals, and I might get ahead of them a little bit if they need replenishing.
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: The management of this event is vital, and I can’t express enough how much Paul has been essential. Giving away the bears with Santa, we get lost in the moment, and we’ve got to have somebody managing the situation behind the scenes. Paul does a great job of that, and I’m so appreciative for all the years that he’s done that. He makes sure that we don’t run out in one terminal, which would mean we don’t make it to the end. There’s a lot involved in the logistics of it.
How are you funded now, to buy all those bears, candy canes and whatnot?
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: The Motor Unit pooled its funds together the first year. The next couple of years we kind of struggled along. I even solicited one of my friends – his company donated the first batch of candy canes. He bought like 1,000 for us. The next year I was able to ask the airport for funding, and the airport provided it. This year, when I went to Fiscal and said, “Hey, we’re putting together this drive,” there wasn’t even a question from them. It looks like it’s something that will continue on. I get a little teasing and hazing about it from Fiscal. They say, “Yeah, we know, you want your teddy bear money!”
You’ve all mentioned family. It seems to me that there are a couple of different families here. You have your work family, your brother and sister Officers. But you also have your domestic families, too.
Ofcr. Nick Van Dragt: All of our families come to participate in this on Christmas morning. It’s really special.
When this started, my son Hank was only one year old. He started coming to the airport on Christmas morning. Since then he’s progressed, and last year he was promoted to elf, so we had him dressed up as an elf. He helped Santa pass out the teddy bears. It’s awesome to have that kind of opportunity for him.
A lot of City employees have to work on Christmas Day or Thanksgiving or New Year’s, to cover shifts. They might rather be at home on a holiday, but they have to work. It sounds like you actually enjoy working on Christmas morning.
Ofcr. Paul Mosqueda: I was scheduled to work that first year. But the couple of years after that, I chose to work the day. I didn’t request it off and I didn’t have any vacation planned. I’ll be here this Christmas.
Ofcr. Nick Van Dragt: I just enjoy doing this with my family here. It’s so much fun.
And Rob, as the PIO, you would normally have that day off, correct?
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: Oh yes – I have that day off, but this is such an important event. It makes a huge difference, so we’re happy to come in. It’s a labor of love.
Do you have favorite moments that you remember, that really stick with you?
Ofcr. Paul Mosqueda: I can pretty much bet that 99 percent of the time, children are not requesting to travel on Christmas Day. Typically it’s the parents who are figuring out the logistics, and the kids are just going along. For them to see Santa at the airport on a day they didn’t plan to be here, it really blindsides them, and that makes it fun and rewarding for me.
And then there are moments when somebody comes up and requests to get a bear for a sister or brother, thinking that Santa is on his way out. They’ll want to pause us there and run and grab them. They want to share the experience. That makes the moment worthwhile for me.
Ofcr. Nick Van Dragt: Last year was pretty cool because I got to see my son dressed up as an elf, and he was out there passing out teddy bears to little kids and even adults and just bring smiles to their faces so that sticks out to me.
Santa (resembling Steve Van Noord): I have a story. A boy about eight years old comes up to me and he says, “You’re not real.” And I pat my stomach and I said, “I feel real.” And he says, “No, that beard’s a fake.” My beard is totally real! And I said, “Why don’t you give it a tug?” He gave it a tug and I said, “Ow!” He said, “Holy smokes, you are real!”
I’ll always remember that one.
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: For me – it took a few years, but one year we started our rounds in Terminal 1. As soon as we walked in, the employees of the airline that’s there [Southwest], they played Christmas carols on the speakers. They all started singing “Here Comes Santa Claus” as we walked in, and it was very impromptu. All the employees came out. They were hugging Santa and taking pictures with him. It’s as meaningful to the adults as it is to the children, it really is.
Do you ever think that you are creating memory in the children that they’re going to have forever?
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: Absolutely, that’s part of that building the relationship and trust that I talked about. These are trying times that we’re all in, and some people are not so trusting of public service. That’s not what we are. Something like this changes that whole attitude. It’s the way it was when I was a little kid. You looked up to Police Officers, and we’re starting that now. It’s a whole culture change that we’re working on.
Yes, of course. But primarily, it’s to give the kids a bit of Christmas as they travel.
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: Yes, absolutely – it’s about the Airport Police being a family and for us to bring our family to the community. We get as much out of it as they do, we really do. We really are getting as much out of it as we’re giving.
Right. Well said. So the only thing left to do, then is to wish everyone at in the Airport Police family a Merry Christmas from the Club!
Sgt. Rob Pedregon: Thank you. And Merry Christmas to you, too, and to all Club Members.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Club Director of Marketing Summy Lam (foreground) photographs Santa with the Airport Police family at LAX Friday, Nov. 15.