COSTA MESA — The Gordon family hadn't celebrated Christmas in six years.
Harry got injured while working in an Apple Valley power plant, and Ronda was unable to work because of seizures.
Soon the Gordons and their two children found themselves homeless. For 15 days, they lived in a tent in the desert during 114-degree heat. Eventually they made their way to the Costa Mesa Motor Inn — a roof over their heads, but no room for luxury.
"It's hard, but we really became closer," Ronda said.
On Friday, the Santa Letter Program through the Costa Mesa Fire Department brought Christmas to the Gordons. With off-duty firefighters and donors lined up outside, gifts in hand, the Gordons' Harbor Boulevard motel room became filled with as many clothes, toys and necessities — and, to top it off, a glowing tree.
The Gordons were one of 10 families and two outreach groups to receive gifts through the program.
It all started 11 years ago when firefighter Todd Palombo received letters addressed to Santa at a Costa Mesa post office. He and other firefighters realized that many children were asking for basic necessities like clothes. While responding to emergency calls, they also saw that many people survived on very little.
"We can fix a problem, but sometimes we walk away with a heavy heart" after seeing a family's living conditions, Palombo said.
The firefighters connected with families in need through social workers in schools, Santa letters and while on 911 calls.
"It's a program where you leave all judgment at the door," Palombo said.
To participate, families must fulfill one requirement: Write Santa a letter with what they want.
In faint pencil, Harry wrote, "I want my family to be safe!!!" and asked for a gas card. Ronda wrote: "Will be grateful for anything received."
As the group of about 50 traveled to each destination, Battalion Chief Kevin Diamond and sons Mitch and Nick stayed behind to help assemble a new bunk bed for one family who had some members sleeping on the floor.
Another stop on Santa's Friday route was the Heritage House on Placentia Avenue, one of two recovery homes in Orange County where women can live with their children as they receive treatment.
"I'm going to cry; this is really exciting," said Kayla Former, who was there with her 2-year-old son, Shane.
Shane wants to be a fireman when he grows up.
Two Kriss Kringles came along for the ride, and Edmme Cockrell said she was glad her son would meet the man in red.
"He's afraid of them, so it's nice for him to see they're not scary," she said.
Palombo said this year's effort exceeded all expectations, and with so many gifts going out, it was a good thing there would be paramedics handing out gifts to families, too.
"We may need medical aid because they're going to be shocked!" he said.