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Genessa Porras, accompanied by La Grande Police Officer Matt Duncan, tries to decide what pair of earrings to purchase while buying presents for her family, and herself, during the fifth annual Shop With a Cop event at Walmart Tuesday. (PHIL BULLOCK/The Observer)
A dozen kids paired with law enforcement officers descended upon the Island City Walmart Tuesday morning to do some Christmas shopping.
The La Grande Police Department hosted its fifth annual Shop With a Cop event, a program that provides an allowance for local children to buy gifts for their families. The children, first- through sixth-grade students in the La Grande School District, were excused from school to shop and eat lunch with the police officers.
Police Chief Brian Harvey was excited as he waited for the kids to arrive on the department’s SWAT bus, which picked them up from school.
“It’s a community outreach program to help some of the kids” in the area whose families may not have much for Christmas, Harvey said. “It’s fabulous.”
Police officers and Union County Sheriff’s deputies are paired with a child, who comes ready with a list. The children are pre-selected with the help of school counselors. They are children who have economic or social needs, have not participated in Shop With a Cop before and are not receiving support from another charitable program. Each child is given a $100 allowance, which is provided by community donors.
“Then we have people do the wrapping and transportation,” Harvey said.
A total of 26 volunteers helped with the 2013 event, said Sgt. Jason Hays, an event organizer. Spouses of officers and dispatchers helped wrap presents after they were purchased. Other people were there to drive the kids home.
“It’s a very unique and positive opportunity for police to be involved with the kids,” Hays said. The law enforcement officers said children may not always have a positive interaction with police, so Shop With a Cop enables them to build trust.
“Police have a negative connotation, so we’re able to show we’re human and we care about the kids,” Hays said.
Hays and other volunteers said their favorite part about the annual event is interacting with the kids.
“My favorite part is how excited the kids are when we pick them up at school,” Hays said. “Everything about it is 100 percent joy. It’s just rewarding.”
On top of the $100 for the kids to spend on family members, the officers also buy Christmas trees if they find out one of the children involved doesn’t have a tree at home.
Retired Sgt. Scott Franks helped launch La Grande’s Shop With a Cop program in 2009. Though he retired in 2011, he still returns each year to help.
“It’s such a great event for the kids,” he said, noting that support for the event has grown a lot.
Of note to Frank and Hays is the selfless attitude with which the kids shop. On top of their $100 allowance, at the end of shopping the children are encouraged to buy themselves a little gift.
“(My favorite part) is probably just being around the kids and seeing how unselfish they are,” Franks said. “We almost have to force them to get a gift for themselves.”