Seven-year-old Juan Julian Domingo Lopez threw up his hands in excitement when he spotted a giant stuffed Pikachu on Saturday at the Target in The Villages.
His mother, Natividad Lopez Jacinto, of Leesburg, and Gina Poesie, Fruitland Park Police Department school resource officer, smiled and laughed at the joyful reaction during the department’s annual Shop with a Cop program.
The department hosted the event alongside Leesburg Police Department’s Shop with a Cop program and Lady Lake Police Department’s Santa’s Heroes and Helpers Shopping Extravaganza.
Just a few aisles over from Juan, Cpl. Lidia Maya with the Lady Lake Police Department played with a hula hoop with sisters Neleea Colon, 6, and Cataleea Colon, 3, of Leesburg.
They, along with nearly 100 other local children, were treated to an eventful morning of shopping and celebrating the season on Saturday.
“It’s an awesome experience to be able to give back and make somebody’s day or holiday a little bit brighter,” said Steve Hunt, Lady Lake Police Department police chief. “We are always looking for ways to break down barriers between the people that we serve.”
The agencies have taken local children shopping for the holidays for six years now.
This year, all the agencies raised enough money to take 97 children shopping, and they each got to spend $100.
Each department raised money throughout the year to support the programs, but the Kiwanis Club of Lady Lake also is a significant sponsor of the effort, Hunt said.
Supporting this kind of program is what the group is all about, said Corey Gold, Kiwanis Club president.
“To see how much excitement there is when we can do things like this, it’s a lot of fun,” said Gold, of Lady Lake.
The club’s support means a lot to the police departments as well.
“It’s awesome, because in a profession where sometimes you feel like you’re on your own and to turn around and do an event like this and the citizens show up with checks, it’s nice to see that,” said Erik Luce, Fruitland Park Police Department police chief.
Staff at local schools pick families and students they think might need a little extra support or help during the holidays and let the police departments know.
This included Dawn Prokopy, who was with her 8-year-old son Malachi Dillard, of Ocklawaha.
This was Prokopy’s first time experiencing the program as a recipient. Last year, she worked the event as a Target employee.
It was a heartwarming moment for her, because at first, Malachi wanted to buy stuff for other kids in need. However, they reminded him that this moment and experience was about him.
“I love it,” she said. “I love to see him smile … and (the officers) are doing an amazing job.”
About 30 officers from all three departments came out to take the children shopping this year.
One of those was Scott Kolb, evidence technician with Lady Lake Police Department.
He participated in a similar program in Maryland and said it always is a positive experience for law enforcement and the community.
“You get to be with the kids, and you see the joy on their faces once they pick out things,” he said.
One of the families he shopped with was Sofia, 6, and Dominic, 9, of Lady Lake.
Both children were very excited for the opportunity, as it was their first time, they said.
They also were given dog and hamster stuffed animals by the police departments, and Sofia already had named her stuffed animal Hammy, she said.
“It amazing and they’re excited,” said Jessica Torres, their mother. “I feel grateful and happy for the experience.”
For Sgt. Shannon Walsh, with Leesburg Police Department, that is what it’s all about — seeing the joy on the kids’ faces each year, she said.
“It humanizes the badge and shows the community what we’re truly here for, and that’s to help serve the community,” she said.
In addition to shopping with the law enforcement officers, children and their families also got their photos taken with Santa and an elf. Fruitland Park Police Department also is providing a Christmas dinner for the roughly 25 families in its area, Luce said.
“We’re trying to make a positive impact on these children, and start early,” Luce said. “And give them some hope, because we don’t know what they’re going through at home. So, we need to make that bright spot in their day.”
This weekend, the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office will host its Kids, Cops and Christmas event and Wildwood Police Department will hold its Christmas with a Cop program, both at The Villages Walmart.
“It’s helping build trust between kids and us,” Luce said. “They can look at us as a source of help rather than authority.”
Senior writer Veronica Wernicke can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5307, or firstname.lastname@example.org.