Imagine waking up on a snowy December morning in first grade knowing that you will soon be going Christmas present shopping. However, instead of shopping with your parents, a police officer will personally escort you (lights, sirens, and all) to the store, where he will give you $125 to spend on your gifts. Then, you will enjoy lunch while Santa and his helpers wrap all of your presents. After you have eaten, you will return home and sneak the presents under the tree. You know that you want to tell mom and dad all about your adventure, but you have to keep their presents top secret.
Though this may sound like a scene from a cute holiday movie, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Parma Lodge #15 has made this a reality for an estimated 750 local children with their Shop With a Cop program.
“It’s a lot of fun for the kids, but it also is a good time for the policemen,” says Don Behrens, FOP Executive Board Trustee and retired Brook Park officer. “These kids really leave a great impact on the officers they spend the day with.”
The FOP, comprised of active duty and retired police officers, has been offering the Shop With A Cop program for over 15 years. Through this program, they work with schools and social agencies to identify children whose families may need some assistance in the holiday season. Roughly 50 to 60 children from 13 communities, including the northern communities in Medina County, are escorted by a uniformed officer in a marked patrol car to Lodge #15 in Brunswick for breakfast. Immediately following breakfast, they visit the Strongsville Wal-Mart with a $125 gift card to buy presents.
“We love seeing how the kids light up when they are shopping,” says Marcello Marsala, Detective with Strongsville Police Department and Co-Chair of the Shop With a Cop Committee. “And they really get a kick out of riding in the car and seeing the lights and sirens. Everybody involved has a lot of fun.”
The program, which will take place December 3, costs roughly $7,000 and is funded through various fundraisers throughout the year, such as seasonal gift wrapping at SouthPark Mall. It is also fueled through a great deal of manpower, as there is a committee of five that oversee the program, an officer per child, plus a team that prepares the lodge for meals and wraps presents.
“I am among the first to arrive, at 8 am,” says Behrens. “The policemen show up with the kids between 8:30 and 9 We have coffee ready for the officers and juice for the kids. By quarter after ten, they hop in the cars and go out on their caravan procession.”
“We don’t caravan back, because kids take differing amounts of time,” adds Marsala with a chuckle. “Some of them take ten minutes because they come with a plan, others like to browse and weigh their options. So the kids come back one by one. Once they are back, they have the option to have their presents wrapped.”
The last several years, explains Behrens, Santa and Mrs. Claus have been making guest appearances to help make the celebration extra-special. Some of the children start out rather shy, since there are a range of ages represented among the children, but by the time they have returned for lunch they have opened up.
“All around, it is a great experience,” says Marsala. “The kids get a special Christmas celebration, and they get to learn at an early age all about the role law enforcement plays in the community. In this day and age, with how community-police relations have suffered, we appreciate the opportunity to give back and work one-on-one with the best part of our community: our kids.”
Though it may seem as though the media is trying to dehumanize police officers, the entire Shop With a Cop team inevitably reminds the community that the folks in blue are our brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and children. The experience is emotional for both parties.
“I have seen officers so humbled by their experience with the children that they are brought to tears,” says Behrens. “About 2 years ago, we had a volunteer go in one of the cruisers, go to Wal-Mart, and come back. When she returned, she asked me if I recognized her. Turns out, she had been one of the recipients of the gifts, and here she was so moved by everything that she came back to volunteer.”
“I first joined on when one of our deputy chiefs asked if I was interested in doing the program,” says Marsala. “I thought, ‘If I was in a tight situation at the holidays, I would want somebody to do the same for my child.’ It is easier to think of it through that lens, because the communities we serve are a family. And there is nobody that you can trust more than an officer to make the trip safe and fun for your child.”
If you are interested in volunteering at the Shop With a Cop event or future FOP events, please contact Marcello Marsala at 440-580-3230. Interested in providing support by getting involved in their supporting Fraternal Order of Police Associates (FOPA) Lodge #14? The FOPA is open to all outstanding citizens from all walks of life. Contact Mary Bentley at 440.236.3858.