The holiday season was in full swing Saturday as the aisles of Wal-Mart were swarming with beardless Santas and gun-toting elves dressed in blue.
Beardless Santas? Gun-toting elves?
Welcome to the ninth annual Shop with a Cop.
Sponsored by host store Wal-Mart, the Fraternal Order of Police and various local businesses, the program awards $100 gift cards to kids from low-income families. After a breakfast at Old Country Buffet on Roosevelt Road with their parents, this year’s 23 recipients were teamed with volunteers from the police force for an all out shopping spree. The officers play elf to the young Santas, helping them reach items from high shelves and manning the shopping carts.
There’s also an element of traffic control that comes with the event.
“It would be chaos with everyone hitting the toy aisle all at once,” officer David Preiwisch, director of the program said.
Year in and year out, officers have seen a selflessness in the children who participate in the program that reflects the holiday’s spirit. And by the same token, parents often encourage their kids to make their own Christmas wishes come true. A few years ago, Preiwisch said, a disagreement between a child and his mother escalated as the boy insisted on buying her a gift.
As the event got underway Saturday morning, Sgt. Michael Keating called out to a child heading out the restaurant door with her shopper. “Buy something nice for your mom,” he said.
“She told me not to,” the girl replied.
“Do it anyway,” Keating urged.
One child eager to share the wealth was 7-year-old Jonathan Gonzalez. Although initially hesitant to admit that he wanted nothing more than the Operation Spider Man game and, according to his father, Juan, a doll for his little sister, Gonzalez was a man on a mission. Within minutes, he was directing his shopper first to the pet department for a stocking of toys and treats for his dog, then to the popular toy department for gifts for his sisters, his younger brother, and himself. From there he tore off for the clothing department to shop for his older brother and father, and finally to the jewelry counter for mom.
“I don’t know,” Gonzalez said pondering what clothes to buy his father. “He has shirts, he has a hat, he has socks.”
Gonzalez’s rush through the aisles took only an hour.
But through the years Preiwisch has seen children tackle their lists in all manners. Several seasons ago one child set a record for efficiency by putting everything he wanted on layaway the previous evening. It took only five minutes to come in the next morning to pick it up.
Jachai Mathis, also 7, was willing to play Santa Claus for his brother (a Soulja Boy music CD), his grandmother and mother (a massage seat topper) before treating himself to a Hot Wheels racing car, Monopoly and a Power Tour electric guitar.
Back at Old Country Buffet and eager to show off his haul between bites from a plate loaded with French toast and bacon, he ignored admonishments not to take anything out of the bags.
“It’s been tough, very tough, this year, and it was so nice of the police department to do something like this,” Evelyn, Jachai’s grandmother, said. Scrunched into a booth, she was barricaded on all sides by plastic Wal-Mart bags bulging with booty. She accompanied Jachai because his mother had to work.
Preiwisch surveyed the booths and tables filled with excited children and smiling, appreciative parents. He had been up since 6 a.m. the previous day preparing for the event, but the lack of sleep didn’t show.
“This is my fond farewell,” he admitted. “I’m retiring next year, and I’m gonna miss seeing the kids’ faces. That’s the greatest joy.”
After a moment’s pause, Preiwisch added to the sentiment.
“Maybe I’ll come back next year just for that,” he said.