Holiday magic filled the air Saturday at Walmart in Mount Airy, where about 20 local kids were treated to a shopping spree — escorted by law enforcement personnel whose sponsoring organization picked up the tab.
The department store’s regular weekend shopping crowd was joined by a somewhat-unusual sight: uniformed deputies and police officers, wearing badges and maybe a gun holster or two, carefully maneuvering shopping carts through the aisles while helping the youths select items.
Their first stops tended to be clothing racks or shelves of school supplies needed by the group, which included kids representing an age range of about 5 to 17. But sooner or later, many migrated to the video games, sporting goods and toy section during the annual Cops and Kids Christmas program of the Surry County Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
The magical part: It was all for free, with $150 designated for each child including half for clothing or other necessities and the rest to spend as they saw fit.
That proved to be empowering, as well as fun, for the youths who had been selected in advance for the shopping event that has been held for about 30 years.
“This is their first time actually having money,” said a Mount Airy mother as her four children ages 7 to 17 prepared to participate. “I get to go pick it out myself — I’m in charge of this,” she added of their perspective.
“They’re just excited to have the opportunity,” said the mom, who grew tearful when talking about what it means for the family’s Christmas.
“It wouldn’t be as nice,” she commented. “It’s a blessing.”
Saturday’s shopping spree began with everyone meeting in the garden center of Walmart — an assemblage of officers, kids and parents who received instructions from a figure positioned in the middle.
It wasn’t Santa Claus, but Kelly Hiatt, a retired Mount Airy police officer and longtime FOP member who spearheads the Cops and Kids campaign that is supported by community donations.
The youths were matched with officers who were to serve as their combination guides and chaperones, including members of the Mount Airy, Dobson, Pilot Mountain and Elkin police departments; the Surry County Sheriff’s Office; the Surry Community College campus police; and a retired member of the federal Defense Criminal Investigative Service who lives in Surry County.
“We’re actually shopping with 18, but they’re (also) buying for two kids not here,” Hiatt said in totaling the youths involved.
Finally, he said the words everyone seemed to want to hear: “Everybody stop by up front and get them a buggy.” And the shopping extravaganza was unleashed.
‘Baby doll’ for sister
The ensuing spree seemed to be meticulously plotted with the kids seeking out items on their Christmas lists, but also including the spirit of giving.
That was evident with Malachi Smyers, 5, a county resident escorted by Steve Hiatt, a retired longtime deputy with the Surry Sheriff’s Office who is now a reservist.
“When we first got started, one of the first things he said was, ‘I want to get my sister something,’” Hiatt said of meeting Malachi.
“A baby doll!” the boy exclaimed when explaining what he planned to buy for his 4-year-old sibling.
The spirit and fellowship of Christmas also was evident Saturday in the camaraderie taking place between the kids and cops, an important element along with the shopping. They engaged in conversations about school, movies and sports in between selecting items, and after the excursion was completed everyone sat down and had lunch.
“For some of these kids, it’s the first time they’ve had a positive interaction with law enforcement,” said FOP member Bob Hodge of Shoals, a retired federal officer who’s been a volunteer with the Cops and Kids program for 12 years.
A goal of the effort, besides helping children have a merrier Christmas, is promoting lifelong friendships between youths and law enforcement personnel, who the kids come to view as real, caring people rather than officers making arrests.
And when looking at the smiles all around, one got the impression Saturday that FOP members were getting just as much from the shopping experience as the youngsters — highlighting the true meaning of the holiday.
“It’s a feeling of them having an opportunity for a Christmas they might not otherwise have had,” Hodge said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.