STEPHENVILLE — Nothing is more heartwarming than witnessing a child grin from ear to ear with absolute joy. And there’s nothing more satisfying than being the reason why.
Just ask officers from the Tarleton State University Police Department and fellow Erath County law enforcement agencies who brightened the holidays for 40 local children through the very first Shop with a Cop festivities Monday in Stephenville.
The multi-agency effort enhances positive relationships with Erath County’s law enforcement officers by providing a fun-filled holiday shopping adventure for deserving children ages 8-12.
“Oftentimes, these youth come from disadvantaged families and may have already experienced some negative consequences with police,” said Tarleton Police Chief Matt Welch. “This event aids in shaping the image of police officers for the children involved, showing us in a more caring and human light. Being one-on-one with a child, learning more about them as a person and helping to give them a great Christmas helps any child. When a police officer can do that, it helps dispel some of the negativity you see surrounding our profession.”
Festivities kicked off at The Purple Goat where Tarleton police were joined by officers from both the Stephenville and Dublin police departments, Erath County Sheriff’s Office, state troopers with the local Texas Department of Public Safety’s Highway Patrol Division, members of the District and County Attorneys’ offices, and game wardens from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Officers enjoyed getting to know their shopping companions over a hearty breakfast, compliments of V.W. Stephens, proprietor of The Purple Goat, while making each child’s “wish list” ahead of their next stop: Walmart of Stephenville.
Following breakfast, all 40 children rode in a mile-long caravan of patrol units across town with lights flashing and sirens blaring as passersby yielded right-of-way for the procession to their shopping destination. Walmart associates greeted the entourage and provided the kids with individually wrapped bags of candy and other holiday goodies before shopping carts dispersed down the aisles.
The most popular destination: toy aisles, where officers assisted excited children beaming with joy as they picked out new bicycles, footballs and the ever-popular tubs of slime. Some chose fishing poles and tackle boxes, tubs of building blocks and skateboards while others selected toys for their cats and dogs. Many children also chose new jeans, tennis shoes and sweatshirts before reaching their $150 spending allowance.
While navigating the aisles, officers kept tally of spending, guiding the budgeting process, helping make age-appropriate selections, and properly sizing everything from sneakers to winter coats.
Some Walmart shoppers noticed the swarm of uniformed officers chaperoning the children and were quick to pull out their wallets and make impromptu contributions toward next year’s Shop with a Cop.
Stephenville Chief of Police Dan Harris and his officers enjoyed the shopping adventure while patron after patron stopped to thank them for their generosity and good deeds. “We serve and protect an awesome city and the importance of having the ability to make a positive difference in the lives of those we serve and protect, and to make a positive difference in the lives of the children who are our future, it is such an honor,” Harris said. “It is so important for all of us to be able to give back to those we serve and protect.”
One after another, officers led loaded shopping carts to the checkout line where anxious children awaited the moment to walk out with items they personally selected. Officers beamed after playing just a small part in bringing some holiday cheer to some of the county’s disadvantaged youth.
In the end, the officers had just as much fun as the kids.
“Our officers walked away knowing the beautiful smiles, heartfelt acts of kindness, and the joy we were able to bring to these children made a positive impact on the youth,” Harris said. “Having a young child get to ride in a police car and work the lights and siren is a pretty memorable sight. For me, getting to talk to everyone at Walmart over the PA system was pretty cool, too.”
An integral component of the Shop with a Cop agenda is to create an early bond with youth and destigmatize the cop-community relationship. Many of the officers commented they want the kids to know law enforcement officers are human, too, and want strong healthy relationships with them.
“The men and women at Tarleton Police Department are honored to serve their community through events like this. Tarleton is a part of this wonderful community and we are grateful for every opportunity to give back,” Chief Welch said. “All three officers from Tarleton had positive interactions with our children, despite most kids being nervous around police officers. This was an excellent opportunity to break down some of those barriers and bring some holiday joy to their lives.
“My assigned child even said that he hoped to one day become an officer in the military and help his own family out with the money. I told him he could attend Tarleton, join the ROTC and go to college for very little money — his eyes lit up with excitement!”
In all, more than $12,000 in contributions from individual donors and area businesses were collected in just two months for the inaugural event, said Texas DPS Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Duecker, who also promised it won’t be the last.
“In regards to the support from the community, I am still in awe. I had a goal of approximately $3,000 for our first year and we received almost four times that amount,” said Duecker. “We received so much support we could not possibly use all the proceeds for Shop with a Cop due to available manpower within the agencies.”
Remaining funds will be carried forward, with discussions of hosting a back-to-school shopping event for disadvantaged youth in addition to the 2021 holiday event. In the meantime, organizers are filing for non-profit status to officially cement Shop with a Cop as an annual outing in Erath County, Duecker said.
“My hope is Shop with a Cop will continue to have a lasting, positive impact on everyone involved. The impact it had on me was profound,” Duecker added. “I was impressed at how selfless most of the children were. Instead of buying toys and immaterial things, most kids bought items they needed not only for themselves but for their families. This included bedding, animal beds, shampoo, clothing, and things that were not obviously for them but the family as a whole.”
The local program accepts donations throughout the year at the Erath County Sheriff’s Office, Texas DPS Office, Dublin and Stephenville police departments, or at First Financial Bank. Shop with a Cop should be noted in the memo line.