From start to finish, ‘Shop with a Cop’ proves a blast

Collaborative, community-involved event draws rave reviews

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

Coatesville Cpl. Jonathan Shave offers assistance to his shopper at the price-checker.

Coatesville Cpl. Jonathan Shave offers assistance to his shopper at the price-checker. Behind him, Det. Kevin Campbell waits for his turn.

Throngs of unsuspecting customers grabbed parking spaces and shopping carts to brave the bustling crowd at Walmart on Saturday morning, oblivious to the pending invasion.

A little before 10 a.m., shoppers looked up in alarm as wailing sirens and flashing lights pierced the frigid air. Within minutes, two school buses – escorted by a caravan of more than 40 emergency vehicles – unloaded 65 excited children. Spectators’ concerns quickly dissipated as word spread throughout the store: It’s “Shop with a Cop.”

Now in its 11th year, the eagerly-awaited program gives underserved children a shopping spree with a local uniformed police officer or deputy sheriff. Selected by social-service agencies and school counselors, the young consumers receive a spending limit of $100 and are encouraged to buy gifts for relatives, friends, and themselves. Then they are turned loose with an officer wielding a shopping cart who doubles as a gift consultant and financial advisor.

An assembly line of volunteers helped make the wrapping portion of the program go smoothly.

An assembly line of volunteers helps make the wrapping portion of the program go smoothly.

Like many of the dozens of volunteers who make the event happen, Donald Folks repeated his role as the emcee and grand matchmaker, pairing up the young shoppers with a law-enforcement partner. “This is something I’ve just got to do,” he said. “It’s just great to see” the interaction between the officers and children.

In fact, watching the drama unfold invariably lengthened many customers’ shopping expeditions as they found themselves transfixed by the male officers’ befuddlement in the Barbie aisle or the traffic jams at the price-checker.

“Do you know where you’re going?” asked Coatesville Det. Shawn Dowds as his young charge nodded, making a beeline for the toy department. “OK, then, I’m following you,” said Dowds.

Coatesville Police Chief Jack Laufer, who brought his wife and daughter to assist, also found himself with a well-organized spender. “She definitely knows what she wants,” he said. “I’m just going along.”

Nearby, Valley Township Police Chief Joseph Friel demonstrated why the excursion also served as a math lesson: He used his cell phone calculator to help his bargain-hunter stay within budget.

Coatesville Det. Shannon Smith offers assistance to her shopper in the Barbie section.

Coatesville Det. Shannon Miller offers assistance to her shopper in the popular Barbie section.

Michele Serbin, the Walmart manager, said the employees look forward to the event as much as the kids do. She said the store has participated since the beginning. “It’s all about the kids,” she said. “We’re just glad to be a part of it.”

Serbin said her employees do a fair amount of explaining to customers. After all, it isn’t every day that dozens of men and women in blue cavort around the store with elves and Santa Claus. Even Bouc, the K-9 partner of West Caln Township Police Chief Curt Martinez, made a crowd-pleasing appearance.

Despite the hubbub, the public reaction remained positive. “People love hearing about it,” Serbin said.

Tonnette Maxie, a Valley Township resident, said she was delighted to see that the program was still operating. “I think it’s awesome what they are doing,” she said, adding that her family once benefited. “It helped us out so much. It’s a great thing.”

Coatesville Police Sgt. Rodger Ollis, one of the many organizers, said two of the main sponsors are the Witmer Public Safety Group, Inc., which operates the Fire Store, Officer Store, and EMS store, and Hope Beyond Borders, a Coatesville-based nonprofit that focuses on youth development. He said the Witmers raised the bulk of the money, and the nonprofit dispersed it. New this year was a breakfast, which was organized by Hope Beyond Borders.

Emcee Donald Folks takes a break from directing traffic in hopes that Santa will let him take Mickey home.

Taking a brief break from directing traffic, “Shop with a Cop” emcee Donald Folks poses with Santa in hopes of getting to take Mickey Mouse home.

Jim Witmer said he and his wife, Ruth, give their employees the chance to wear jeans on Fridays for a $2 donation and then match whatever amount the workers raise. This year’s total – $15,000 – was the highest to date, he said. “We love doing it. The kids are so excited; just look at their faces,” he said as a bike and a beaming boy zipped past him. “It’s awesome.”

Ollis said generous donations also came from the West End Fire Company, Exelon Power Labs, Krapf’s Buses, and the Police Benevolent Association. Another vital component: volunteers.

Besides the shopping assistants, dozens of people helped behind the scenes, Ollis said, from the advance preparations to the ongoing activities for the children when they’re weren’t shopping to the final gift-wrapping station. Representatives of the Coatesville Youth Initiative, Masons Lily of the Valley Lodge #59, and the Chester County Safe Kids Coalition all performed a variety of duties, he said.

Even better: It was all unsolicited, Ollis said. “I don’t have to call and beg anyone to help,” he said. “People call me to ask what they can do.”

Sgt. Rodger Ollis helps his shopper with a DVD selection.

Sgt. Rodger Ollis helps his shopper sort through a large bin  of DVDs to make the right selection. Later, the purchase would be wrapped by a crew that included his wife, Michele.

Equally heart-warming were some of this year’s donors, Ollis said. He said one check came from a woman who happened to be in the Walmart during last year’s event and felt the magic. “That was pretty neat,” he said.

Another special donation resulted from somber circumstances: the recent death of Dennis D. Campbell, a senior manager at  QVC and the father of Coatesville Det. Kevin Campbell.  In lieu of flowers, his family sought donations to Shop with a Cop in his memory.

“My brother Neal is a police officer in Upper Merion, and my dad was so proud of both of us,” explained the detective. “It just seemed like the right thing to do … the kind of thing he would definitely appreciate.”

The sentiment proved apt since appreciation from the kids was on full display, typified by the experience of Deputy Sheriff Janis Pickell, who seemed to be steering her cart around in circles.

Pickell said every time her shopper asked if the item she had just found represented her last purchase, she changed her mind when Pickell said yes.  “I think she just doesn’t want this to end,” Pickell whispered.






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