The expressions Lake Shore Police Chief Steve Sundstrom sees on children’s faces on Christmas Eve morning are unmatched.
Each year Christmas for Kids, a nonprofit organization, provides presents to area children in need. Area law enforcement officers, along with Santa, Mrs. Claus and their elves, deliver the packages on Christmas Eve morning. Sundstrom has coordinated the deliveries for years.
Sundstrom began with Christmas for Kids more than 20 years ago, in 1992, as a delivery driver. Christmas for Kids coordinates the funding, buys the presents and hosts a wrapping party, where volunteers wrap the presents, and then law enforcement and other volunteers deliver the gifts.
Sundstrom coordinates the volunteer group each year.
On average, Sundstrom said, the group delivers gifts to around 80 families a year. When the economy was at its worst, he said, they delivered to around 100 families, including 300 children.
The group of 30 or so volunteers meets Christmas Eve morning at the Nisswa Community Center, where a law enforcement officer is paired with one or two of many volunteers who portray Santa, an elf or Mrs. Claus for the day. Together they hit the road to deliver the presents.
Sundstrom said many law enforcement agencies are involved in the deliveries, including Pequot Lakes, Breezy Point, Nisswa and Lake Shore police, both the Cass and Crow Wing county sheriffs and conservation officers with the Department of Natural Resources.
Things have occasionally gotten interesting along the way, Sundstrom said, as all the officers are on duty. They still respond to calls in between deliveries. Other officers who aren’t making deliveries are also on duty, so the area’s not at any loss for police coverage.
Sundstrom said that occasionally, at minor accidents, Santa has helped to direct traffic. Santa has also calmed children at medical calls. That isn’t the case if the incident is too serious or dangerous, he said.
“Some kids, that’s all they get for the whole year,” Sundstrom said of the Christmas for Kids efforts. He said that, without question, many of the children would not have received anything for Christmas.
The best part of the job, he said, is “just to see the joy on the kid’s face.”
In addition to toys, each child gets clothing and some winter apparel. The family gets a bag of groceries with everything needed for a holiday meal with all the fixings.
Some people are struggling to keep the heat on and can’t afford presents for Christmas. Sundstrom recalled a family that hit hard times — the father had lost his job and the mother was dying of HIV.
“The family was so grateful, and the mom was so happy,” Sundstrom said of the gifts they received.
The homes and situations the group delivers to can be rough, he said, but the children are always filled with joy when Santa comes to the door with presents.
“We don’t want parents to ever be ashamed about signing up because it’s about the kids,” he said.
Occasionally on a delivery a child will ask why Santa isn’t in his sleigh. Sundstrom explains that Santa’s sleigh has broken down, or Rudolph is sick that day.
They also carry extra gifts in case a child’s friend or relative happens to be at a family’s house. That way no one feels left out or forgotten by Santa.
Sundstrom is a Pequot Lakes native. He began his law enforcement career with the Pequot Lakes Police Department before moving to the Lake Shore department, where he’s been since 1997. He became chief in 2003.
In addition to his work at the Lake Shore Police Department, Sundstrom and his wife, Stacy, coordinate the youth program at Christ Community Church in Nisswa. They have four children. He also referees middle level basketball games.
Sundstrom praised the Christmas for Kids program.
“When you donate to that program, 100 percent goes to the kids. No one gets paid,” he said. “Katie (Wagener, a Christmas for Kids coordinator) is the angel of Christmas.”
Sundstrom will be back on the road this year the morning of Dec. 24 with Santa and Mrs. Claus to deliver presents.