Christmas is Saturday.
For 75 children and 200 law enforcement officers and community volunteers, Santa will start his ride at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, with sirens blasting and blue lights cutting through the cold darkness.
More than Santa and a sleigh-full of gifts, however, the spirit of Christmas arrives on Saturday as well -- especially for law enforcement officers in Blount County, Maryville and Alcoa.
Shop With a Cop is Saturday. This year, 75 underprivileged children will be paired with cops for an Alcoa Wal-Mart shopping spree that always brings home the true meaning of this season of hope and celebration.
“It sets the tone for the Christmas season for us,” said Brett Hall, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Bud Allison Lodge 9. “It is a neat experience for the officers. We know the difference it makes when you see the smiles on the kids’ faces. They see us in a positive light. It is just as good for the officers as it is for the children.”
Ron Dunn, chief deputy with Blount County Sheriff’s Office, helped start the program in 1989 with now Maryville Police Chief Tony Crisp. Dunn said it never ceases to amaze him at how generous youngsters who have so little are to others.
“We watch those kids take X number of dollars with the understanding they can buy anything they want,” Dunn said. “And we see them choosing gifts for their mom, dad and siblings before they pick out anything for themselves. That is what amazes me. That is what is always heartwarming.”
Shop with a Cop started in Blount County in 1989 when Dunn, Crisp and Bud Allison, the father of the F.O.P. in Blount County, were taking under privileged children to youth camp in Townsend.
“It started with this little boy named Kevin,” said Crisp. “He was probably 8 or 9, and it was his first camp. He was a real shy boy, and his mom was real concerned about him going to camp. We remembered him because we had to keep assuring his mother we would take good care of him.
Crisp said the boy did well at camp. “We got to know Kevin reasonably well. His mother wrote him little notes and put them in his socks,” the chief said. “Later that fall she passed away, and we saw it in the newspaper.”
Crisp said he and Dunn started talking and thought it would be nice to do something for Kevin at Christmas. “That is when Hills was in Foothills Plaza. We collected some money between us and from people we knew and took him to Hills and did some shopping,” he said. “That gave us the idea of having a Shop with a Cop program, and it has really grown tremendously.”
Crisp said the volunteers - F.O.P. members and other folks in the community -- are always touched by the program. “It is probably more rewarding for the volunteers, knowing they have opportunity to get out and help those less fortune than we are,” he said.
The chief said parents are always very appreciative of the work the officers do with Shop With a Cop. “It really makes a difference in their lives,” he said. “It is heartwarming to see those kids have a good experience with law enforcement and show them people in general are good people and want to help.”
Crisp said it would be impossible for the officers to do what they do through Shop With a Cop without tremendous and generous support of people, organizations and volunteers who donate not only time, but money.
Dunn said it is a joy to see the program make a difference in people’s lives. “Just watching those kids, and watching the program grow from one kid that first year. The second year we did 10 kids, and it just exploded after that,” Dunn said.
Hall explained that guidance counselors and law enforcement officers recommend youngsters ages 6 to 10 for the program. There is also an at-large process where people can come by Justice Center, Alcoa Police Department or Maryville Police Department and turn in applications. “We had about 150 to 160 applications turned in, and we have to narrow it down because of age,” Hall said.
Hall said he and Jarrod Millsaps, community outreach coordinator with the Blount County Sheriff’s Office, Shop with a Cop coordinator and second vice president of the Bud Allison Memorial Lodge 9, go through a database of children who have been in the program to see who hasn’t experienced Shop With a Cop.
“That helps narrow it down. This year we will be able to take 75 kids and give them $150 each to spend. We wish we could take every single one. We get as many kids possible and try to help as many as we can experience the Shop With a Cop program,” Hall said.
Hall said Shop with a Cop starts long before the parents drop their children at the Blount County Justice Center at 6 a.m. on a December Saturday.
“In a way, it is a year-around effort. The majority of our money comes from Slimfest, a community street party and reverse raffle held in August and organized by Steve ‘Slim’ Stilts. This year we raised around $33,000, it was split 3 ways between Shop With a Cop, and the Maryville and Alcoa high school booster clubs,” he said. “We also get a lot of at-large donations from people who support it every year.”
Shop With a Cop has also expanded into a monthly program in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Month program. The Youth of the Month at both Parkside and Eagleton clubs get $50 each to shop for themselves.
“The little girl I had this month went through and used it for her Christmas shopping. There was a gentleman in the store who asked what we were doing, and, when we told him, and he gave us another $100,” Hall said. “So she went back and bought more presents for her family.
“You don’t have to lead them to be unselfish. They think of brothers and sisters and parents, and they buy for them,” said Hall. “It really is a neat experience.”
Millsaps said he always gets motivated to do his own shopping for his family after helping with Shop With a Cop.
“It is one of those things you look forward to doing each year,” Millsaps said. “It is a way of reaching out and helping families and children.”
To make a donation to Shop With a Cop, mail checks to the Fraternal Order of Police, Bud Allison Lodge 9, P.O. Box 5256, Maryville, TN., 37802. You can also take donations to the Blount County Justice Center or Maryville Police Department. Mark it to the attention of Sgt. Brett Hall or Jarrod Millsaps.