Ten-year-old Lakota Hughes walks swiftly through the electronics section in Walmart, leading Union County Sheriff’s Deputy Dane Jensen, who is pushing a shopping cart containing presents she has picked out for her family members.
Lakota is taking part in the La Grande Police Department’s 10th annual Shop with a Cop event. She overhears LGPD Sergeant Kris Rasmussen mention to Jensen the children can also get a Christmas tree if their families don’t have one. Lakota looks up at Jensen.
“So we’re going to get a tree for my mommy?” she asks, her dress adorned with a Christmas tree.
“Yep,” Jensen responds with a smile. “How’s that?”
“Good!” Lakota exclaims as she resumes her search for the perfect gifts with extra pep in her step.
Lakota, a student at Island City Elementary School, was one of the 15 children from five local schools participating in this year’s Shop with a Cop event, which is sponsored by the LGPD. Officers from the LGPD, the Union County Sheriff’s Office and the Oregon State Police all take part in the event. The children are chosen by school counselors at their respective schools, and they each receive $100 to buy Christmas presents for their family. After they are finished shopping, the children drop their presents off with volunteers who wrap them, then they eat lunch with the cop they shopped with.
When the program began in 2009, the police department received a $1,000 grant from Walmart. Now the program receives a $2,000 grant from Walmart and between $1,000 and $2,000 from community members and business contributions.
LGPD Sergeant Jason Hays, who coordinates the event, said the officers look forward to Shop with a Cop.
“As far as the officers are concerned, this is the one thing we do out of the entire year where the entire thing is positive,” Hays said. “Spending that one-on-one time with children is very positive, and we are doing that in a fun environment.”
OSP Trooper Kainoa Delatori has been participating in the shopping event for three years and said he enjoys volunteering for it.
“On a normal workday, when someone sees us, whether it’s an adult or a kid, they automatically think negatively, whether that’s from what they see on TV or what they see in the community,” Delatori said. “When we get to interact with kids like this in a positive light, take pictures, run around Walmart, (and) they get to go pick out Christmas gifts — there’s nothing negative about it.”
Shop with a Cop gives children a positive early impression of police officers, the state trooper added.
“It shows them (at a young age that) interaction with law enforcement doesn’t always have to be negative,” Delatori said.
Delatori was paired with Damian Picard, a 10-year-old who attends Central Elementary School. He said he had fun shopping.
“I had never shopped with a cop before,” Damian said.
Officers weren’t the only ones helping the children shop. Chief Brian Harvey joined in on the fun as well. Harvey has taken part in the event since he became chief nine years ago. He said the event is refreshing for cops.
“It’s reaffirming to be able to help give kids a season of hope,” he said.
While the event started before Harvey became chief, he said he had no hesitations about continuing the practice when he joined the LGPD.
“When they told me what they were doing and what it was all about, I was 100 percent on board,” Harvey said. “It’s a great, great outreach program.”
Shop with a Cop events can be found across Oregon and around the country, though it’s not clear where the tradition started. Hays said the LGPD was inspired to put on the event by the Redmond Police Department.
Approximately 35 volunteers help put on the event, which is a partnership between LGPD, Walmart and Loveland Funeral Home. Over the past 10 years, the event has served 150 children in the area. The children hail from La Grande Middle School, Central Elementary School, Greenwood Elementary School, Island City Elementary School and the La Grande School District’s Rising Stars program.
While the children get to do the shopping, Harvey said they aren’t the only ones reaping rewards from the event.
“It’s just powerful. It’s revitalizing for us and reminds us why we do this job. We deal with a world that has a lot of sorrow and tragedy and we see a lot of that firsthand. Having this experience for us is really helpful. We benefit from it as much as the kids do.”
Anyone who wishes to make a donation to this event can contact Carla Greenough at the La Grande Police Department 541-963-1017