Navidad en el Barrio (NEED) is the dream-come-true of retired HPD Sgt. Izzy Gomez goes on and on after more than 30 years

Michael Ybanez

The Charitable Christmas Organization known as “Navidad en el Barrio” (translated as Christmas in the Neighborhood) began at the Houston Police Storefront located at the Ripley House community center in 1987 with a $5,000 grant from Rainbo  Baking Company.

Then-HPD Officer Israel “Izzy” Gomez, now retired, was stationed at Ripley House as a storefront / community services officer and was given the responsibility to provide a Christmas program for children with the simple request to “make it go as far as possible.”

“Izzy,” as Gomez prefers to be called, remembers asking fellow police officers for assistance in providing our children with a memorable event.  It was decided that 500 children from the area’s elementary schools would be invited.  With the budget of $10 per child, each one of them would receive a minimum of three gifts.

Other in-kind donations such as fruit, food, drinks, bags and other goodies were provided by police officers and friends.

The first event was held at Jackson Middle School where 489 children from 12 elementary schools attended and it was a success. After this first successful event, Izzy stated that he had a real change of heart about what policing was all about and began to understand that he could have a positive effect on the lives of young children by virtue of his job status as a Houston police officer and community mentor.

Izzy never looked back. With the help of numerous sponsors and volunteers, he is now celebrating 30 years of making wishes come true!

More than 60,000 children and families have benefitted since the program’s inception. Of course, Izzy is not alone in his charitable endeavors and relies on an army of volunteers, board members, private and corporate donors known as his “Christmas Angels.”  For the most part, they are anonymous donors providing funds for specific requests from the neediest of children such as new beds and mattresses, Christmas trees, shoes for their dads, clothes for their moms and food for their refrigerators – to name a few.

For instance, this past Christmas saw one young little seven-year-old girl make a specific request for a special wheelchair for her disabled uncle with whom she lives. An anonymous donor, hearing this request, graciously donated the new wheelchair.   Our emcee, Patricia Lopez with ABC 13, read the child’s essay to the 1,700 children in attendance.  Not a dry eye in the house was found as the little girl opened her present.

With much surprise, her uncle was brought to the event by another anonymous donor and walked, with assistance, on stage to receive his gift from his niece.   This is what NEEB is all about!!!

Touched by this experience, Patricia offered to help every year!

Officer Linda Ybanez is an HPOU board member and a NEEB board member as well. Our own Houston Police Officers Union has assisted Linda in raising funds for the program as well allowing NEEB to conduct board meetings in the building. Union board members have volunteered to help pass out presents and have donated presents to the kids. The HPD Narcotics Division has donated its Blue Santa presents to Officer Ybanez so that she may provide kids with extra presents every year.

Izzy and his core of volunteers and sponsors work year-round to be able to put on the grand Navidad event, usually held in the early weeks of December of each year, which involves approximately 2,000 children from sometimes as many as 50 schools in Houston and the surrounding areas. The children are hosted to a multi-performance show at the George R. Brown Convention Center and for the past few years featured HPD Chief Art Acevedo and Harris County Sheriff (and former HPD Sergeant) Ed Gonzales as key speakers.

Chief Acevedo stresses the importance of a good education and he is committed to be involved at the event each year. Forty children from each school are sponsored by a NEEB volunteer known as a School Liaison (many of whom are HPD officers) and the children are treated to fun, food, drinks and each child is presented with a bag of at least three to five toys each.  An essay contest, “If I had 3 Wishes, I would ask for ——–” is offered to the children and winners receive bikes and extra goodies.

Each school represented, 44 in 2017, also receive a girl and a boy bicycle as a door prize the day of the event. The program culminates with an arrival of the big guy himself, Santa Claus, aka Kris Kringle, who is loudly brought into the arena on motorcycles by the Los Carnales Motorcycle Club. They are major donors to NEEB on a yearly basis.

Houston Police Sgt. Robert Medel led the procession of motorcycles into the GRB this past December and he said, “We love seeing the kids’ reactions to Santa arriving on a big Harley Davidson motorcycle and are blessed to be a part of such a great charitable organization and looking forward to next year already.”

But, the Big Event is not the last event of the year. NEEB also hosts Christmas parties at the Harris County Jail so that mothers who are incarcerated can give their children presents and see them at Christmas time, providing a positive contact with their children at Christmastime. Additionally, a party for teenagers is held where NEEB identifies teens in the NEEB Christmas season. Then there was a Christmas Eve day party for families who have been referred to NEEB by police officers and school officials.

Planning for the big event begins a year or more in advance with monthly fundraising events held throughout the year. Fundraising events include mixers with donors, internet donations, golf tournaments, Mujeres and Margaritas (women only) mixer, a dance and a formal gala known as Taquitos and Chanclitas (tacos and sandals) event which features many prominent Houston leaders making guest appearance to support Navidad en el Barrio.

At the Taquitos and Chanclitas Gala many attendees wear formal outfits with sandals to serve as a reminder that not every child’s family can afford shoes and to never let us forget where we came from.

Izzy reminds people that he grew up poor but never knew he was poor because of the immense amount of love that his family bestowed on him as a young child. Izzy’s wife and NEEB president, Martha Gomez, met Izzy while she also worked at Ripley House and she signed on to his dreams of helping the most unfortunate. Together they serve as a super team backed up by their children and close relatives and look forward to someday seeing the organization’s torch of hope carried forward by all of their children.

NEEB is a 501 C-3 non-profit organization designed to improve the lives of the less fortunate in our community and its charitable practices have extended to other Texas cities to include Laredo and San Antonio. NEEB is also instrumental in helping better the lives of the elderly folks of the community by sponsoring the “Young at Heart” party for Houston senior citizens drawn from local elderly-related organizations. NEEB is instrumental in educating our youth by sponsoring scholarships to numerous high school students with the promise of a commitment to help their community through volunteer efforts.

Izzy stated that he hopes someday to see NEEB become a nationwide and worldwide charitable icon to help as many unfortunate children as earthly possible and proudly says that he never forgot his first marching order from Rainbo Baking Company to “make it go as far as possible!”

We would say he is making good on that order.

Izzy is always helped by Santa, retired Sgt. Victor Landa, his brother-in-law and sister, Margaret Landa, also a retired Houston police sergeant. With Hurricane Harvey affecting so many including Navidad En El Barrio, Izzy’s request is that all who read this article donate $20 or more to sponsor a child in 2018.