Eddie LeBlanc, a Carrollton police officer, has learned something about the children he has made friends with during his years participating in the annual Shop With a Cop program.
They have priorities -- toys are not always at the top of their wish lists.
“You would be surprised with how many kids actually get clothes before they grab a toy," Leblanc said. "It touches your heart because we would think that most kids come up here and grab toys, but really they grab clothes, underwear, sock and shoes.”
Shop With a Cop is a program that many law enforcement and related agencies participate in each year to provide children with the Christmas gifts -- and memories -- they might otherwise go without. The money they use to buy the gifts come from fundraisers and contributions.
“This is the time of year where we have all kinds of departments turn out to give back to the community we love and serve,” LeBlanc said, citing the various agencies that participate. "We have all come together to help kids who need care.”
Shop With a Cop, he said, also serves another purpose -- it can build a positive connection between the police and the community.
“This is also a wonderful opportunity for us, too,” said LeBlanc. “One day, we want the kids to look at a police officer and say that they had a wonderful experience. The money we raised to make this happen came from the Fraternal Order of Police. The community, businesses and individuals all came together. There was a show of love. We have been doing this for years now and we hope that it does not stop.”
Officers are paired with kids at the police stations. The officers drive the children to a store -- often a department store like Wal-Mart and Target -- and allow the children to run the siren and flash the blue lights. Children are then accompanied around the stores and are not given a limit on what they can buy.
“This is a blessing for us,” said Jermaine McKenzie, father of Lauryn. “It was like she woke up at Christmas. This helps us around the holidays, but it is just not about the gifts that my daughter is receiving. It is more rewarding to see the interaction between my daughter and the police.”
Officer Candace Gamble, who was escorting Lauryn around Target, said this is her favorite time of the year because she enjoys seeing the kids' expressions and their excitement.
“People see us (police) in a negative light so this is a great way to have one-on-one time,” Gamble said.
The Fraternal Order of Police has two large events, one with underprivileged children and the other with special needs children. Because of the funds raised this year, LeBlanc said they were able to take more children shopping than they ever had in the past.
“Our Shop With a Cop was fantastic this year,” said Villa Rica Capt. Keith Shaddix. “We are so blessed. I have been asked to speak at a couple of civic groups about our Shop With a Cop program but other than that we do not go out and solicit money. We take donations year-round and it is just amazing to see the response we get from the community. We helped 115 kids this year.”
Shaddix said that $15,500 to $16,000 was raised without making a phone call or going out and asking for money.
“This community really gets behind us and supports us and this was all donation-driven, and to have this without making phones calls and asking, the program has managed to grow every year,” said Shaddix. “In two hours we shopped with over 100 kids. Also amazing to see the number of people, in Wal-Mart, that came up to us and asked to contribute. We raised close to $1,000 in Wal-Mart as we shopped with the kids, from just people asking to help.”
Shaddix said this event renews faith both in the community and the police.
“It shows really how much the community cares and supports us,” he said. “Without those who contributed, we could not do this. The kids were great and I was just blessed to see the impact we had on our community's children. We are here to serve our community in any way we can and this makes it all worth it.”