The sounds of sirens and red and blue flashing lights are often associated with bad experiences. That wasn’t the case Monday night — nor later this evening — as members of the Ardmore Police Department, along with Heroes for Hope, continued a 30-year tradition of Shop with Cops.
Heroes for Hope recently took up the mantle for the annual event as part of a larger initiative to expand community outreach throughout the county.
Shop with Cops was previously a stand-alone organization, but has been absorbed into the overall mission of Heroes for Hope, allowing the organization to shoulder the fundraising and organizational burdens that previously fell directly on the officers involved.
Melissa Woolly, executive director for Heroes for Hope, said that about 100 kids would get the chance to Shop with Cops through today, with more trips possible before the month ends.
“We do this one big shopping trip, then as funds are available, we will continue to take kids in smaller groups as we see the need,” Woolly said. “We will have different organizations calling us with families who may have fallen through the cracks. They contact us and we will take them shopping as we see the need.”
Woolly said the annual event continues to surpass expectations while creating a family-friendly environment for all involved.
“It’s been pure excitement,” Woolly said. “We have the officers and their wives and kids, it becomes a real family affair, they really enjoy it. And even some of the officers that couldn’t be here tonight — they will be here tomorrow — but their families came out tonight to participate and help the other officers.”
Woolly said that each trip — at least 4 over Monday and Tuesday — would include more than 20 kids per trip.
Sgt. Audi Gee, President of the Ardmore Fraternity of Police, said the event offers more to the department and the community than just a shopping spree.
“It helps us out in the community and it shows the kids that we aren’t a bad group of guys,” Gee said. “It shows them that we are here to help. The kid we take shopping, if we end up having to interact with their families in the future, then they know we are there to help them.”
Gee said the impact can be seen through everyday interactions officers have in the community.
“It’s not just the families we help at this time of year, it’s the members of the community that see us out shopping with the kids. It also helps them be able to come out and talk to us, it closes that gap,” Gee said. “Everybody in the police department is excited about Shop with Cops - they are more than willing to help - and it lets us do more than just police work and lets us get out and get involved with the community.”
Corporal Travis Shields, a five-year veteran of the Ardmore Police Department, took part in his fifth Shop with Cops event on Monday.
“I just wanted to be able to give back to the kids, the kids that maybe won’t get the Christmas gifts that other kids do,” Shields said. “Every year, it’s just an eye-opening experience for me. I get to interact with them, my family gets to interact. I have a son about the same age as these kids, and he gets to talk them. I think that’s a real good thing for him to see.”
Sheild said the interaction with the children goes beyond the annual trip to Wal-Mart.
“I run into the kids that rode in my car for Shop with Cops, I see them on a call and they come up and give me a hug, so that is really neat,” Shield said. “We want to be perceived to those kids as the good guys. If something is happening to them in their lives, we want them to feel comfortable coming to us for help.”
Officer Ian Naylor, Ardmore PD’s reigning officer of the year, has participated with Shop with Cops for the three years he’s been with the department.
“It’s gotten a little bit better each year, every year more officers are getting involved,” Naylor said. “It makes the kids look at us differently, they aren’t as scared as they usually are. They really love it, they really enjoy. Every year, it’s awesome just taking the kids over there shopping and getting them something they normally don’t get.”
Naylor said the event can be emotional for everyone involved, but the most rewarding part is witnessing the parents’ reactions to seeing how happy it makes their children.
“It has a pretty big impact. Everyone is in the Christmas spirit this time of year, it’s just a feel-good moment and it’s nice to be able to give something back to the community,” Cpl. Stuart Hoffman, in his sixth year at Shop with Cops, said. “Everyone is very grateful. I really enjoy that, especially in our line of work, people aren’t grateful to see us a lot of the time, and being able to give back is just an unbelievable experience.”