As part of the second-annual Holiday Workshop Project, a gift-giving and public-relations effort spearheaded by the DEA, about 40 DEA, FBI and ICE agents helped distribute toys at Kent's Neely-O'Brien Elementary. The idea — to bring some holiday cheer into the lives of a largely impoverished student body, but also to show the un-Grinchy side...

Share story



In a hallway outside the gym at Kent’s Neely-O’Brien Elementary, Assistant Principal Dennis Duffy detailed the plan for a squad of wide-eyed students. Then the door opened, and the kids were greeted by federal agents wearing jackets and shirts with familiar initials: DEA. FBI. ICE.

On Wednesday, the second-annual Holiday Workshop Project came to Kent, where 40 agents from the local offices of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Federal Bureau of Investigation were on hand to give the school’s 600-plus kids a holiday toy of their choice — and, in some cases, some much-needed winter wear.

“What would you like to look at?” an ICE agent asked 5th-grader Daniela Chavez, holding her hand.

“Barbies!” Daniela said.

Immediately, the 11-year-old marched to a table loaded with two dozen dolls and pointed to one, barely visible, in back — one of a series of multicultural fashion dolls, this one named Daniela. “It’s got her name,” the agent said.

“That’s why I picked it,” Daniela said, beaming.

The event, organized by the DEA, was meant to bring cheer into the lives of the school’s largely poor population, but a bigger goal was to show the un-Grinchy side of federal agencies whose roles might be perceived otherwise.

In the words of Mark Thomas, the DEA’s special-agent-in-charge, it was a chance to demonstrate leadership, “integrate with the communities, and give something back.”

The makeup of the Kent School District, fourth largest in the state, has changed rapidly in recent years, with about 51 percent of students members of minority groups, compared to one-third just five years ago.

A third of Neely-O’Brien’s students are Latino, a quarter is white and about 65 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. For a time, one fourth-grader wore her grandmother’s shoes to school until staffers found a way to replace them.

“Families live paycheck to paycheck,” said Melanie Mairs, a district family advocate assigned to the school who says more parents are losing their jobs, seeing their work hours cut and moving in with relatives.

Special Agent Jody Underwood, of the DEA, said the event was a way to confront any negative perceptions of police that children might have. “What we’re doing is giving these kids a positive view of law enforcement,” she said. “… All in all, it sends a good message to them that we’re human beings, too.”

While only a few kids may have such perceptions, she said, “If you reach one kid out of 600, it’s worth it.”

Some saw the challenge as particularly high for ICE given the natural tensions that exist between the agency and those in the community who may be in the country illegally.

Dianne Aid, an immigrant advocate in nearby Auburn, said the thought of ICE officials on school grounds made her “panicky.” One Latino youth leader she talked to, she said, told her the best Christmas gift agents could offer some kids would be “to give them back their parents.”

Special-agent-in-charge Thomas said such worries were unfounded.

“We’re not here on an investigative or enforcement mission,” he said. “This is just an example of three federal agencies partnering up on a common cause that is good for the community.”

Saying they hoped to surprise the kids, school officials had advertised the event on a limited basis. A flier was to be sent home with students when the day was over.

Aid found that troubling. Though little has happened since a series of Auburn-area raids in 2007, “when parents find out ICE was there, it’s going to make them really nervous,” she said. “I like to make my decisions based on information. I’d want to give that same dignity to everyone else.”

Latino community members closer to the school in Kent, however, doubted the agencies’ presence on school grounds was anything but genuine.

“I would just doubt the superintendent would let something like that go through,” said Rodrigo Barron, director of Kent’s Lucy Lopez Community Center. “… Things are pretty calm. People feel fairly comfortable about not being watched.”

“We feel very safe,” agreed Roberto Gonzales, owner of Kent’s Mexico Lindo restaurant. “This is going to be for Christmas. I don’t have any concerns.”

On rare occasions, Duffy said, students will inform school staffers that a parent has been taken away by ICE officers, but citizenship isn’t otherwise discussed. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make diverse populations welcome in our school,” he said “… I would think that there’s a great deal of trust that if we’re bringing them in, it’s OK.”

For the kids at Wednesday’s event, it was all good. Undeterred, they rummaged among the approximately 1,300 new toys that about 180 federal agents had purchased with their own money, looking for that special something.

Some, like Daniela Chavez, knew exactly what they wanted and waited for their less decisive classmates, effervescing over hand-picked coloring kits, soccer balls or Hannah Montana dolls.

“I really like action,” says 11-year-old fifth-grader Laundyn Wimbish, holding a military-themed action figure. “Some day I’m gonna join the Army.”

Daniela examined her prize. “Her eyes look so real,” she said.

The agent let go of Daniela’s hand and said goodbye. “Merry Christmas,” she told her.