Shortly after 8:30 Wednesday morning, Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus marshalled their forces at St. Paul Police Department headquarters and launched an early start to Christmas for hundreds of sick children.

Using a St. Paul Police motorcade with sirens blaring as an escort, the department's Cops and Kids program first visited Children's Hospitals and Clinics on Smith Avenue. Later Wednesday afternoon, they were to appear at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare on University Avenue E. It is the 14th year for the event.

Santa, who left the police station driving a motorcycle and not a sleigh, and Mrs. Claus, who was riding in the sidecar, planned to deliver more than 500 gifts over the course of the day. And a handful of elves tagged along to help.

So did several police horses and Duke, a K-9 officer.

At Children's, Santa even played a little air hockey with one young patient.

Officer Amy Rahlf, who has been on the Cops and Kids planning committee for 14 years and has played Mrs. Claus for the last past three, said the event means as much to the cops as it does to the kids.

“It’s just amazing as you visit with the children and see their smiles when Santa and Mrs. Claus walk into their rooms,” she said. “It brings joy to everyone who participates in this event to really make it a special day for the children and their families.”

Cops and Kids is supported by donations from St. Paul businesses and organizations. Other police fundraising events -- including an officer-organized motorcycle run, chili cook-off and Koins for Kids collection -- provide money for the program. Police also give gas cards to some families with children in the hospitals to help ease the stress of getting to and from the hospital to visit their kids.

Photo of Emily Kargel with Santa and his helpers by Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune