HUNTINGTON — The average age of attendees at Redmen Bingo Hall in West Huntington dramatically decreased Tuesday afternoon as hundreds of elementary school children celebrated the nearing holidays at the Fraternal Order of Police Gold Star Lodge 65's annual Christmas party.

Huntington Police officer Brandon Adkins said this year's event served about 250 kids from every elementary school in Huntington city limits. About 30 students in first through third grade from each school were at the event, along with their siblings if they were older.

The students received a hot meal thanks to Marco's Pizza, McDonald’s, Kroger and Frito-Lay, got their pictures taken with Santa and Mrs. Claus and received a specially wrapped present.

Adkins estimated about $8,000 had been spent on Tuesday's event. The money comes from the FOP's annual Ride with the Cops motorcycle rally hosted by the local chapter of the Blue Knights Motorcycle Club.

Adkins said the event started in the 1990s and continues to grow each year. It would not be possible without the community, which provides each year monetary and volunteer donations to keep it going, he said.

Huntington Police Department Capt. Ray Cornwell led the event for nearly two decades before Adkins took over about three years ago. Adkins said leading the event felt right for him after joining the police force.

"It started for me when I was 18 when I started buying for one family," he said. "The way I grew up was I would ask my parents for one more and they said this was all we could afford. I felt bad because of that. I was buying for a family here and there, but when this came available to touch the lives of 250 kids, rather than just one, I jumped at the opportunity."

The students were loud and playful as they ate, colored pictures and enjoyed a midday break from school. Some of them presented their art to Santa as they told them their special Christmas wishes.

While the Christmas present was the prize at the end of Tuesday's festivities, Adkins said the children getting a full meal and interacting with officers in a nonconfrontational atmosphere was just as important.

"It's obviously a big advantage on our end. They don't see us in a 'business' sense. We are a friend," he said. "It helps with our relationship with them because they see we aren't here as a bad guy. We are here to help them, and we are a person just like them."

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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