The snow was setting everything back.

In the parking lot of the pizza place, a car got stuck, and Camden Police Sgt. Tyree Nobles spent 10 minutes helping the driver. And when Nobles finally had the pizza, traffic was crawling on the icy roads back to the police union hall.

Inside the downtown building, young partygoers already were taking their seats, scribbling in coloring books as Christmas songs played over the loudspeaker.

"I'm way behind," Nobles said Monday night as he unloaded a van filled with hoagie platters, soda, and everything else needed to feed 150 children, their parents, and a handful of police volunteers at the annual holiday gathering.

When they reflect this Christmas morning on the joy of the season, many of the guests will no doubt think of Nobles and his brethren at the Camden Police Athletic League. Some of the families sat at the same tables last December and might do so next year and the year after, as long as the league continues to spread cheer and hand out toys.

Nobles, 42, has been part of the tradition almost since it began 18 years ago. He wasn't long out of the Marine Corps and had joined the force on a whim.

Now nearing his 20th year as a Camden officer, Nobles is vice president of the PAL chapter and its summer programs and sports leagues for youths. He volunteers with other police charitable organizations as well.

"A lot of people in the department are involved" in the city, Lt. Doug Pietrowicz said, "but Sgt. Nobles has been at it a long time. He's got a lot of roots here."

Nobles has started to think about retiring, taking a security job and relaxing a bit. But there are always the children - the ones he sees each day in school, the ones on the corner downtown where he lives in his childhood home.

"You're working in the community. You can't help but see the need," Nobles said. Many men and women on the force devote their personal time to helping Camden, he said. "This job involves you in ways you can't imagine. I'm not unique."

For the better part of his police career, Nobles has worked in Camden schools or on the streets as a juvenile officer. After his recent promotion to sergeant, he opted to remain among youths.

Much of his time as a supervisor in the department's school unit is spent at Camden High, his alma mater, and Woodrow Wilson High.

Despite the district's metal detectors and security guards, much of the violence that plays out in the streets finds its way into the hallways, said Tyrone Richards, principal of Woodrow Wilson, in East Camden.

"Fights, which are often gang-related, or family disagreements, they're a fact of life in this city. That doesn't change because [students are] forced to come here five days a week," Richards said.

Nobles doesn't dwell on his childhood or his father, who, he simply said, "lives in Philadelphia." But he likes to think he understands better than many what young people in Camden face. He grew up poor, too, raised by a single mother who worked in a school cafeteria.

He joined the military after graduating from high school, where he was an undistinguished student but a standout middle-distance runner who helped a relay team set a national record in the mid-1980s. Nobles was offered college track scholarships, but didn't have the "desire," he said.

After the Marines, he returned home, and when a friend mentioned that the police force was hiring, his career path was set.

"It wasn't like it was planned," he said.

Throughout his career, charity work has taken up much of his free time, whether it's working with children in a junior police academy in the summer or delivering turkeys to families on Thanksgiving.

On a recent cold night, Nobles - who has three children, ages 10 to 15 - gathered toys and food for needy children. And at the PAL party, he joined the kids for spirited rounds of musical chairs.

As Nobles played to the crowd, relishing the shouts of "cheater" from the laughing children he beat to an empty chair, Darlene Smith, 50, sat happily with her granddaughter Praise.

"Her mother passed. It was a car accident coming back from Florida," said Smith, of the Parkside neighborhood.

"I don't have much. I usually make the gifts, taking a teddy bear and sewing hair on it, things like that," she said. "This is a real blessing."

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.