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'Twas a night before Christmas and a group of Merrillville firefighters put on their gear.

The call came from Santa. He asked for help to give a family in need some holiday cheer.

They jumped on their truck with lights flashing, and off to a house they went dashing.

They delivered a sack full of presents that included toys and clothes, too. Christmas was merrier for the family, thanks to the crew.

That's been the Christmas tradition for the Merrillville Fire Department.

For more than a decade, the town's full-time and volunteer firefighters have donated money from their pockets to help buy gifts for a low-income family, Deputy Fire Chief Jim Lilley said.

The department works with the Ross Township trustee's office each holiday season to select a family they can help. After finding out what's on the wish lists for the children in the family, the firefighters go shopping. They also buy gifts for the parents.

If enough money is collected, the department also obtains gift cards to a local grocery store, Lilley said.

The fun comes on or around Christmas Eve. Santa visits the Merrillville Fire Department and hops on a fire engine as they head to the home of the family.

Once close, the siren is activated and lights begin flashing. Santa emerges with the presents and surprises the family with the gifts.

Lilley said it “feels great” to be associated with the annual gift-giving tradition, “especially this time of year.”

The firefighters' desire to give back to their community and donate their own money to help a family in need shows their “high character,” Lilley said.

The Merrillville Fire Department isn't the only Northwest Indiana agency recruited by Santa to help during the holidays.

The Michigan City Police Department on Dec. 3 brought 80 adults and children with learning disabilities to Walmart to buy some gifts for the holidays.

It's part of the department's Shop with Our Cops program, Michigan City Police Chief Mark Swistek said.

The program, which started in 2013, is funded through community donations, Swistek said. Almost $9,000 was generated this year, he said.

“We're all very fortunate as a community” that there are many businesses and other organizations willing to contribute to the Police Department's outreach programs, Swistek said.

The department doesn't stop there.

Swistek said he and other officers also take time to serve as bell ringers for The Salvation Army's Red Kettle campaign.

On Christmas Day, Michigan City officers will donate their time to deliver hundreds of meals to residents who are unable to get out for the holidays or don't have a place to go. Like the Shop with Our Cops program, meals are purchased with donated funds.

Swistek said many officers bring their families along as they deliver the meals and visit with the residents.

“It's great we're able to give back,” Swistek said.

In Lake Station, the Police Department on Dec. 15 held its annual Youth Assistance Program with some help from the city's Fire Department.

It all started with the Fire Department preparing and serving breakfast to children at the fire station. From there, the 25 children were transported to Meijer in Merrillville to pick out some items. Each child was allowed to spend $100, Lake Station Assistant Police Chief Jerry Baldazo said.

The department coordinates with local schools to select children from low-income families to participate in the program.

Although the intent is for participants to pick out items they want for Christmas, it's common for them to also look for gifts for their parents and siblings, Baldazo said.

“They're not just looking for themselves,” he said.

The department started the Youth Assistance Program more than 15 years ago. Donations from a variety of organizations and money raised from the Police Department's annual car show fund the initiative.

Not all of the local holiday traditions have been around for years.

The Hebron Police Department had its first Cops and Kids event Dec. 12. Hebron Police Chief Joshua Noel said 18 children from Hebron schools were accompanied by officers as they went to Meijer in Valparaiso for a holiday shopping spree.

About $3,000 was donated for the program.

In addition to helping kids pick out some gifts, the department also delivered food baskets, Noel said.

He said officers also participated in a fundraiser that generated $765, which was recently provided to help a local woman battling cancer.

“We're trying to show (the community) we care about them,” Noel said.

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