By Deb Kroon
Christmas came early for six Nobles County families thanks to a new program “Shop With a Cop” adopted by the Nobles County Sheriff’s Department.
Once a year Sheriff Kent Wilkening gets together with his deputies to do an evaluation of the department, a “how have we done, what can we do better?” – type of meeting. One topic of interest that came out of the meeting was “Shop with a Cop.” Although not a new program, “Shop with a Cop,” had never been done in Nobles County and the deputies were excited to give it a try.
Deputy Kristi (Honermann) Leopold took on the job of organizing this program for the department. I sat down and talked to her and Chief Deputy Chris Dybevick on Friday morning after the event. I wished everyone could personally have felt the enthusiasm that was coming from these two officers. Kristi explained that she contacted the area schools and service organizations searching for a list of candidate families throughout Nobles County for this Christmas shopping event. “The schools were a big help” said Kristi. “We were looking for kids who behave in school, that are good kids, maybe just having a bad year,” interjected Chief Deputy Dybervick. Kristi went on, “We started our search for kids who were between the ages of five and twelve years old. We would not single out one child from a family. If the family had a candidate, all the siblings in this age range were included. We ended up extending the age range from age three to fourteen. Six families were selected; two from Adrian, one from Ellsworth, one from Rushmore, one from Lismore and one from Round Lake. I commented that no families from Worthington had been picked. Chris explained, “It was very important to Sheriff Wilkening that the outer areas of the county were included.” Enthusiastically Kristi continued, “I was planning this event for two months. I was so excited I could hardly wait! Part of my job was to go to the families and personally explain the program and tell them their children had been selected to participate. The parents got to inform their children they would be going on a shopping spree. Quite a few of the parents revealed that they were a little nervous when I pulled up, imaging the worse.”
After the families were personally informed, a letter was sent to them, outlining the program. Each child was to receive $100 they could spend on toys and $50 for clothing. They were encouraged to “pre-shop” so they had an idea of what they (both parents and kids) wanted before they actually went shopping.
On Thursday, December 7, at 5:00 p.m. the six families and eleven members of the Sheriff’s Department, including Sheriff Wilkening, converged on Walmart to shop. Only two of the department’s deputies were unable to attend. “This shows how valuable the department felt this program was. Eleven out of thirteen volunteered. The other two had prior commitments,” said Chris. With fourteen kids and only eleven officers, some were going to have to double up. The two women volunteered, telling their male counterparts that they (the women) “were more experienced at shopping” and could handle multiple kids.
The officers were introduced to their child(ren) and family for the evening. “The anticipation level of the kids throughout the evening was really high,” said Kristi. “One of the kids told me, “You told us too early-I haven’t been able to sleep,” she said with a laugh. Chris added, “The kids were pretty shy at first, but by the end of two hours, each deputy was getting hugs.”
Each officer personally shopped with a child, pushing the cart. The kids excitedly pulled their choices from the shelves. Imagine how excited they must have been! Amid a lot of “are you sure” from the deputies, the kids knew what they wanted. Some had been going through flyers for weeks. The final approval of course was by the parent. “Some of the younger kids went for quantity,” commented Chris. “The older kids went for high end items they knew they would never otherwise receive.” “Jeans, coats, snow pants and tennis shoes were some of the clothing items they chose,” said Kristi. “My “kid” told me her tennis shoes were too small, so she got new ones.”
Now imagine yourself as a Walmart shopper, on a random Thursday night before Christmas, seeing eleven law enforcement officers roaming around the store! At the same time! After a brief explanation to those who were concerned enough to ask, the shopping went on. “Walmart had four extra people working and one manager to help us out,” Chris said. “We had two checkout lanes open just for us. Walmart did an exceptional job at accommodating us.”
After they finished shopping, and had all their gifts paid for, the kids just ‘hung out’ with the officers, talking and getting acquainted until everyone was finished. “I had never met my family before. It turned out we knew quite a few of the same people. Small world,” commented Chris.
“This was such a positive bonding experience,” he added. We are definitely going to do this program next year.” “We were able to have such a successful first year because of a grant from Walmart,” explained Kristi, “as well as a generous donation from the Elks Club in Worthington and a couple of private donors. We’ve already had one business contact us about next year. If anyone wants to donate, they can contact the Sheriff’s Department.”
In the twenty or so minutes I spent with these two officers, they made me feel just as excited as they were about the wonderful experience they had. “We don’t very often get to deliver good news. It was a lot of fun to be able to be the good guys. We got to show law enforcement in a positive light,” they both finished together. I could tell these two deputies had an evening that put a whole new perspective on the joy of Christmas. They were as excited as if they had been the shoppers.
As for the new gifts, some of them were going under the tree to be reopened on Christmas morning. What a great Christmas it will be for fourteen lucky children. But the joy doesn’t end with the kids. The deputies themselves received a very special gift that made their Christmas extra special and experienced first hand that the joy of Christmas is in the giving, not just receiving. Isn’t that the true meaning of this special holiday!