A little boy selected a skateboard for himself, but was more concerned with getting scarves, hats and gloves for his school’s Christmas drive.
“It’s to help!” he said, as O’Fallon police officer Patrick Derhake escorted him on a shopping excursion Sunday at the O’Fallon Walmart.
During the Christmastime Cops and Kids event, 17 officers, from patrolman to chief, and a police dispatcher, helped bring comfort and joy to dozens of children.
Children, ages 5 to 10 (in kindergarten through third grade), are selected from O’Fallon School District 90 and Central School District 104, based on recommendations from school social workers and counselors.
Police Sgt. Mike Mojzis chaired the 16th annual event sponsored by the O’Fallon Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 198. He said this year was the largest number helped, thanks to community donations. Last year, 40 children benefited.
“We have a good partnership with the schools. We send permission slips, and the parents return them,” he said.
Each child receives $250 to purchase gifts. Some children chose to spend a portion on gifts for family members.
The officers’ union funds the program, along with community partners, including Walmart, which has participated since it started.
“Every year, we apply for a Walmart grant, and it’s usually for $2,500. Proceeds from our golf tournament are used,” Mojzis said. “We want to get them basics, like clothes, and we always make sure we get some toys.”
The program has been able to grow because of unsolicited donations.
“A lot of donations have come in, and we didn’t even expect it,” he said, estimating that $12,000 was raised totally.
One patron entered the Walmart doors, came over to Mojzis, handed him money, and took off to shop.
Police Chief Eric Van Hook said he is proud of his team’s community outreach.
“The Cops and Kids event is just one of many that OPD officers and their families give back to the community that is so supportive of them. This day is just one example of how our officers approach their job every day,” he said. “Being able to help families provide a great Christmas for over 40 children is awesome, and the gratitude demonstrated by the families and children is amazing. This is always a special day for all of us.”
Michelle Foster, a police dispatcher, took part for the first time.
“It’s great to see the kids and talk to the parents, especially since I don’t get to see their faces when I’m working,” she said.
Several officers have volunteered every year. This is the third year for Matt Adamson.
“It’s fun. I’ve got kids about the same age. I get to see how happy they are. We have fun with the kids. It’s exciting for them,” Adamson said.
Van Hook and Capt. Kirk Brueggeman were assigned three boys, including a set of twins. The chief looked at the notes, and told the captain, “They need coats.”
While officers pushed carts down near the checkout lanes, a lady in line turned to them with a thumbs up.
“Great job, guys!” she shouted.
Matt Plassman accompanied Myah, 6, who was looking for a FurReal Tiger she wanted. Foster found it while accompanying her shopper.
“This is a great experience, to see the excitement of the kids and to talk to the parents, who are so appreciative,” Plassman said.
Rick Orr, a veteran of 17 years, has participated about eight times.
“It’s great that we can help the kids out, making a good Christmas for their families,” he said.
Jada, 7, who turns 8 in January, couldn’t lift the Barbie Dream Camper, but was jumping for joy.
“That’s all I wanted!” she said.
Derhake said the little boy he helped also picked out a baby doll for his sister.
“It’s my baby sister!” the 6-year-old said with a smile.
“It’s good to go with the kids, especially one who is so selfless. He wants to get things for others and to help people,” said Derhake, who has been doing this for 15 years. One of his first pairings was a girl, Moesha, who is now 15, and still keeps in touch.
“It’s cool, because we have this connection from this program,” he said. “It’s all about building that rapport in the community.”