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Two Santas in blue bring holiday joy

It was not in the job description. There was no duty listing under "good deeds." It was just something the two of them years ago decided to do.

There are human beings inside the blue uniforms. There are hearts beneath the badges. Cops in the inner city get a ticket into people's lives. They see even good people at their worst. And they see the worst that happens to good people. From that observation point, it is only a short leap to the North Pole.

Sheila Suggs-Barrons and Val Shropshire do not look like Santa Claus. Suggs-Barrons is short and bulldog-thick, imposing in blue. Shropshire is taller and softer-edged, her look accessorized with don't-mess-with-me eyes. The Buffalo cops work out of E District, a collection of tattered streets in America's third-poorest city; homes where many families are a pink slip, an illness or a bad break away from disaster.

For Teniel Walker, calamity came in late October. A thief broke into the single mom's apartment on Langfield Drive. He found the stash of cash she set aside for rent and Christmas presents for her three kids.

Walker is 27, with a soft voice and a welcoming gaze. After working as a bus aide, she went back to school to train as a dental assistant. She gets Paris, 10, and Caleb, 4, ready for school each weekday morning. Two-year-old Decario gets picked up by his grandmother. Then Walker catches the 7:50 bus downtown to the Educational Opportunity Center.

Getting robbed was not part of the plan. She weeks ago took the kids aside, explained that Christmas would come late this year. When she told me about it the other day, she looked away and tears fell. We were sitting on her living room couch, ripped fabric on one cushion. A 12-inch box TV played in the corner.

"I've been trying to do everything right," she told me. "The robbery really set me back. I didn't have one toy for my kids. All I could do was pray."

A week ago Friday the phone rang. Walker did not recognize the number. Someone claiming to be a Buffalo cop said she had gifts for her kids.

"I thought she was fooling me," said Walker. "I almost hung up."

No, the caller said, it was true. She said she would come by the next day, with her partner, to drop off the presents.

Although Walker did not realize it, she -- through the unfortunate event of the robbery -- had made the Christmas list of the E District's Santas. The cops who answered the robbery call told colleagues Suggs-Barrons and Shropshire about the family. Quicker than you can say, "two turtle doves," Walker's kids were on the Christmas list.

The two officers, for more than a decade, annually buy presents for several families whom life has blindsided. The list comes from folks that they and colleagues encounter on the job. E District officers chip in at least 10 bucks, along with the PBA, and help with the wrapping. Suggs-Barrons and Shropshire hit the mall on Black Friday. Instant Christmas.

"Especially with this economy, it really hits the working poor," said Shropshire. "A lot of people can only afford lights and gas and food."

It is the alternate reality to the prosperous couples on TV commercials who gift one another with a new car. That is not the universe that 99 percent of us live in. There are far more folks scraping to keep things together than there are celebrating a Lexus-in-a-bow Christmas.

Last week, the Officer Santas delivered the wrapped, age-appropriate gifts to Walker's apartment. The presents were stacked under the tree, awaiting Christmas morning.

"This is like a miracle to me," Walker said. "From having nothing for my kids, to having all this. It's such a blessing."

Merry Christmas, Teniel.


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