Members of local law enforcement wrapped up Christmas with a giant bow for families during the annual Shop with a Cop Indian River.
As with everything else in 2020, this year’s gift extravaganza took on a whole new look. What didn’t change were the looks of pure joy – even hidden under masks – on the faces of the children who were gifted $100 to make their wishes come true.
The longstanding inter-agency collaborative amongst the Fellsmere, Sebastian and Vero Beach Police Departments, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Highway Patrol, Indian River County Sheriff’s Office and Indian River Shores Public Safety Department, ended a tumultuous year on a high note.
With the pandemic still looming large, organizers decided to divide and conquer with Sebastian Police Department officers shopping for Sebastian-area children based on submitted wish lists, rather than shopping with them.
Erring on the side of caution, gifts for those 80 children were distributed at Riverview Park with lots of help from Santa’s elves in blue, concluding with youngsters and their families treated to dinner at the Salvation Army’s food truck.
“It’s one of the favorite things that a lot of our officers get to do. A lot of them were disappointed that we didn’t get to do the shopping part with the kids. I’m hoping next year we can go back to doing that,” said Ofc. Jason Gillette, SPD, noting that with the division of labor, they were able to invite more children to participate this year. “We’re building relationships with the community. We want kids to see the police as the people you can go to for help,” said Gillette.
The remaining law enforcement officers gathered at Vero Beach Walmart where they were assigned a child or two to shop with. Carts overflowed with dolls, dinosaurs, games, basketballs, clothes and perfume, accompanied by the sound of the jolly officers “testing” out the toys with their 100 giggling charges.
“Some of these kids shop for their family. It warms my heart and breaks it at the same time. They are so selfless,” said Dep. Jessica Ogonoski, IRCSO.
The same pandemic health protocols the school district uses were employed so that only good cheer was spread.
“It’s something we need now more than ever. Many families lost their jobs; the kids feel the effects the most. When families lose their finances and their parents struggle, kids notice and take it to heart. It’s really important to make sure that these children know that they are loved and cared for in our community,” said Ogonoski.
For the past few years, proceeds from the summertime Christmas in July at Riverview Park supported the program, with supplemental donations from area businesses and citizens. This year fundraising needed to be done independently to enable the purchase of the $100 gift cards, and get it done they did.
Additionally, through the third annual Pack a Patrol Car, the Sheriff’s Office, VBPD, Walmart and VBHA HOSA students (Health Occupation Students of America) partnered to collect gifts and gift cards for children at SafeSpace and other families in need.
With all the loses this year, it’s nice to know there will be something more than a mask and hand sanitizer under the tree for these local children.