WAPAKONETA — Dressed in full uniform, area law enforcement officers accompany children and their parents through the front door of the Wapakoneta Walmart.
Leading a group, Auglaize County Sheriff Al Solomon comments on the smiles on their faces. He is not only talking about the children who are participating in the annual “Shop With a Cop” but he is addressing the officers with police departments, the sheriff’s office and the Wapakoneta Post of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
He is quick to point out they enjoy coming and showing the children a different side of themselves.
For Solomon, the reason he continues to participate in the annual Christmas event since it started is simple.
“I do it for the kids, the smiles and the hugs — the hugs you get at the end,” Solomon said. “The neatest thing about this whole experience is their faces when they get to choose something — and they are always very respectful. You don’t know what their home life is about but you do know for 25 minutes or a half-an-hour they are smiling. I think we (law enforcement officers) enjoy it as much as the kids do.”
Sheriff’s Office Detective Sgt. Jerry Sawmiller, who coordinated the 18th annual Shop with the Cop event, shared that approximately 60 officers assisted 50 families and 100 children at the event.
“This helps families in need that otherwise wouldn’t be able to have a nice Christmas and holiday to have one,” Sawmiller said. “It is a way that law enforcement can give back to the community.”
Having coordinated the event for several years, Sawmiller explained it is not uncommon for law enforcement personnel to return and do it multiple years.
He said one deputy dresses up in elves’ ears and cap and has for years, which builds on the children spending time with Santa Claus at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Wapakoneta prior to the shopping trip.
While he is unaware if officers continue to keep tabs on the youngsters after the event, he is sure the officers are affected by the event and events leading up to the Shop with a Cop.
“I can’t tell you if they look later on for the child’s name in honor rolls or on the sports pages, in photographs or at school functions, but I have had an officer request a certain child because they have been on a specific call where a youngster is in the household and they have developed a concern for that child and want them for this event,” Sawmiller said. “We are officers and we have a genuine concern for this community and its residents.”
For the first time, Ronnie Leach, an Auglaize County Jail corrections officer, spent time with a young boy who immediately went to the toy aisles of the store.
“I’ve always wanted to do something to give back to the community,” Leach said. “I was kind of one of the less fortunate kids and this is a way for me to give back.”
Leach just met the young boy but quickly learned he likes toy guns.
St. Marys Police Officer Kevin Draiss started participating for a nearly identical reason.
“I think it is a good way for the police community to give back and to connect with the community in a way that they don’t always see us — they tend to see us in a different light,” Draiss said as he and a little girl entered an aisle full of dolls. “It is a way to help meet their needs and it is a good feeling to see those fulfilled.”
Draiss said he gets a “kick out of helping the kids and watching them smile — the first time when they first see us in uniform and then when they get to pick out something they want.”
He said he loves the way the children just light up when they can choose a present.
Wapakoneta Police Lt. Joe Welker, who has participated for the past several years, likes the fact people can look at the officers in a different light and not just as people who issue traffic citations and arrest people.
“We just want to help people here and in the surrounding areas,” Welker said as he shopped with a young girl in the shoe department. “I kind of get more out of this than I do out of my own Christmas at home. It is neat to meet new families and see them out and about throughout the year, continues those contacts and lot of it starts right here.”
He said the Wapakoneta Police Department always has quite a few officers participate in the event and “it is always nice to see that and see all the officers from all the departments come out.”
He noted they sometimes have to juggle their schedules to come back out. Welker had just finished a shift at 4 a.m., went home and came out back to go shopping “and you don’t do that unless this means something to you and it does.
“We also work all year long for this event — we have the dodge ball tournament and the chili cook-off — to help fund this event,” he said. “Those events really build up to this event so we all can have a Merry Christmas.”