CEDAR CITY – In the wee hours of the morning, before the sun crept over the mountain Saturday, first responders from all over Iron County met at the Cedar City Wal-Mart to brighten the holiday season for almost 100 kids from across the county.
Despite the fact that it was barely 6 a.m., the crowded garden center on the north side of the store was alive with abundant conversation. As groggy parents ushered their wide-eyed youngsters into the room, each lucky little shopper was paired with a volunteer.
Cedar City Police Sgt. Jerry Womack said this was his 25th year volunteering for “Shop with a Cop,” and he’s been hooked from year one. He said the holiday season wouldn’t feel complete without this once-a-year, early morning shopping spree.
“For me,” he said, “it’s just getting to watch the smiles on these kids’ faces.”
Womack has been helping coordinate this event, along with the “Tip a Cop” fundraiser that funds “Shop with a Cop,” for a while now, and through the years, he said, he has witnessed some amazing acts of giving. The generosity of the children who are chosen each year is at the top of the list – and this year was no different.
After being paired with a law enforcement officer, fireman, EMS worker or dispatcher, each child was whisked away to have breakfast at Canyon View High School, where members of the Cedar City Elks Lodge had prepared a feast.
A miles-long promenade began, cloaked by darkness, with lights flashing and sirens blaring as the emergency vehicles traveled northbound on Interstate 15 to Exit 62. Departing from I-15 and making a right turn, the procession was rerouted south onto Main Street, where the moving light show created by the vehicles could still be seen stretched across the highway and far into the distance.
One by one, each group of hungry shoppers piled out of the firetrucks, ambulances, police cars and other vehicles and made their way into the high school for sausage and eggs. The women of the Elks, along with their Exalted Ruler Meryl Arns, greeted and then served the energetic crowd of officers and children, who were finally beginning to really wake up.
After a visit with Santa and a tummy full of food, the children loaded back into the cars and trucks with their assigned volunteers and traveled back through town to Wal-Mart to fulfill their target mission: shopping ‘til they dropped.
The children chosen to participate each received $100 Wal-Mart gift cards upon arrival at the store and were told to pick out whatever they wanted in the entire store – from toys and electronics to clothes and shoes. One group of children almost picked out some fish, but the officer they were with cautioned them to ask a parent before purchasing a pet.
When the busy shoppers were done and their carts were full of goodies, the first responder volunteers checked their items out at the register and then brought the children back to the Wal-Mart garden center to have their gifts wrapped.
The line of tables stretched the width of the room, each table covered by several tubes of wrapping paper, scissors, tape and two or three eager volunteers with sleeves rolled up, ready to wrap.
Quick as a whip, the volunteers wrapped present after present. The speed with which they cranked out each gift was almost as remarkable as their tender way with the children as they took the time to talk to each child about the morning’s activities.
Before escaping out the door, each child got the chance to visit with Santa, who had followed along in a helicopter provided by Upper Limit Aviation. Photos were taken of each child with Santa and the child’s volunteer “cop,” but the printer was down, so volunteers were unable to print the pictures on-site. One Wal-Mart volunteer said they would be printed later in the day and sent out to the Iron County Sheriff’s Office for distribution and pickup at a later time.
Womack said none of the activities that took place during Saturday morning’s “Shop with a Cop” event would have been possible without the hard work and dedication of so many volunteers.
Susan Carter, Enoch Police Department administrative officer, said she has been volunteering at “Shop with a Cop” for about 13 years. Her role in the yearly event is to call and invite families that have been referred to the program.
“Every year, there’s a story that just gets to you,” she said.
One woman whose daughter was selected is a single, working mother who walks to and from work every day. Despite the hardships in the home, Carter said, the little girl still excels in her schoolwork and completes every assignment on time.
Another young man, who was also selected to participate at a previous year’s event, filled his shopping cart with food for his family, foregoing toys to nourish the people he loves, instead. When the cashier saw this, Carter said, the food was paid for and the child was told to spend his gift card on himself – so, once again, he headed out into the store, but this time it was to pick out toys for himself.
Stories like these are what inspire the volunteers to continue waking up in the dark to donate hours of their day delighting in the magic of Christmas, she said.
Lady Elk Gina Delange said she has been doing the “Shop with a Cop” breakfast service with the Elks Lodge for 12 years. Before “Shop with a Cop” grew to the massive size it has become, the meal used to be served at the lodge.
Each year, Delange said, she wakes up at 4 a.m. and prepares enough food to feed 225 people. Some years, there is just enough to feed everyone who shows up; other years, there is excess food that is donated to both the Iron County Care and Share and the Bread of Life Community Soup Kitchen.
“The Care and Share won’t take anything that is already prepared, but they will take anything that was packaged,” Delange said. “So, we gave them everything that was packaged and then we gave the rest to (Bread of Life), and they were able to serve it that day and feed people.”
Joann Aldridge, Elks Lodge secretary, said every year during “Shop with a Cop,” they also give each child a gift certificate for $20 to buy shoes.
The giving each year is unbelievable, Womack said. Just walking through the store Saturday with the children, he said, he was stopped about five times and given cash from random shoppers who said they wanted to donate. One man, he said, paid for an entire purchase for one of the children, leaving the card behind to be utilized at next year’s “Shop with a Cop” event.
“I have over $100 from people who stopped me just throughout the store,” Womack said. “So, I get to take that back to the office and put that into the pot for next year.”
After a long morning that was the culmination of many months of hard work, Womack said, his plan for the rest of the day was to go home, rest for a while with his feet up, and then meet with his colleagues to begin planning for next year’s event. It seems a volunteer’s work is never done.
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