WESLEY CHAPEL – Santa Claus had quite a few more gifts in his bag for Union County kids this year, thanks to a group of local law enforcement officers.
The Monroe Union Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #19 recently hosted the annual Cops and Kids event at the Target in Wesley Chapel. Law enforcement officers from the Union County Sheriff’s Office and local police departments visited the store, at 6350 Weddington Road, and united in an effort to help make Christmas special for 43 area children.
The Fraternal Order of Police teams up yearly with the Union County Christmas Bureau, which identifies families with children ages 5 to 11 years old who need a little extra help during the holiday season. Children are given $150, with $75 reserved for clothes and $75 designated for toys. The officers are paired with a child and accompany the children as they pick out the items they want for Christmas.
“(The Christmas Bureau) gets information of sizes and a wish list of the things (the children) want and need to give the officers an idea of what to look for,” said Elizabeth Cooke, an associate member of the Fraternal Order of Police.
The officers showed up at Target early in the morning on Dec. 11, driving their police cars and sporting their uniforms. They, along with some members from the Explorers program, joined the children for the shopping spree, which started at about 7:30 a.m., and accompanied the children as they picked out clothes and toys. Children also had the opportunity to take a photo with Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Once the officers and children finished shopping, the items were taken to “elves” at the register, and the children were informed the presents would be given to Santa to be delivered on Christmas Eve.
The children were taken to the Wesley Chapel Chick-fil-A for breakfast after the shopping event and then returned to Target for a special Christmas party, which Cooke said is always a big hit among the kids.
“Just seeing their smiles and interacting with the officers makes my Christmas,” she said.
Cops and Kids, previously called “Shop with a Cop,” started taking place at the Wesley Chapel Target several years ago, but the program has been around much longer than that, Cooke said. Cooke helps out with the event each year and has seen an increase in need in the community over the past several years.
“There were some families there this year, either due to health problems with one of the parents or job situations – they were asking for help for the first time,” she said, adding the program sees several situations each year where families have multiple children who participate in Cops and Kids.
Cooke said the families who participated were “very grateful” for the program, and one receiving mom said she’d love to help with the program in the future when her family’s health and employment situations get straightened out.
But Cops and Kids does more for these children than brighten their Christmas, Cooke said – the program also encourages healthy relationships between children and law enforcement officers.
“It’s a unique situation,” she said. “A lot of times, kids are afraid of officers. (Cops and Kids) puts them with the officers one on one and shows them, ‘These are the good guys. These ladies and men are here for you.’”
And the officers always have a great time building those relationships, as well, she added.
“Seeing their faces, seeing them interacting with the kids – it’s just unbelievable,” Cooke said. “It turns them into big kids again. They have fun.”