Every Christmas season in the Imperial Valley, on a Saturday afternoon in December, a caravan of law enforcement vehicles and other first responders, blare their sirens as they make their way to Target for a very special mission – to give children facing challenges a joyous holiday experience.
The annual event, well into its 20th year, is called Imperial Valley Shop with a Cop, and it brings together law enforcement and other first responders together with children who might otherwise not experience the joy of receiving a gift during the holiday season.
Under the program, each child selected to participate receives a grant of $100 to buy whatever they want—and as they fill their gift baskets, they often think of others in their family as much as they think of themselves.
Members of the organizing committee for Shop with a Cop can’t help but shed tears as they recall some of their experiences with the children.
“I remember a little girl who would not choose anything for herself until she got something for her baby brother,” said Ali Perez, a senior special agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who also serves as a member of the committee on her own time.
Committee member Tina Garcia, a crime prevention services supervisor for the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office, added, “Many of these kids want to buy for their brothers and sisters.”
The Imperial Valley Shop with a Cop program operates under the umbrella of United Families, an agency that provides child care services for low income families in the Imperial Valley and Riverside. Working together with agencies Valley wide from law enforcement and other first responders, to local clubs and businesses, the goal is to meet a need in the Valley at the holidays, but it goes beyond giving children a gift.
“Our purpose is to build a positive relationship between law enforcement and children,” said Magda Franco, a committee member and associated executive director of United Families.
Another committee member, Doug Struckmeyer, who is a special agent with Immigration and Custom Enforcement, added: “We are trying to foster that positive relationship while providing children a positive holiday experience.”
For the committee members, it is a year-long effort to ensure the success of the program. The work begins on Jan. 1 and isn’t complete until the day of the event, which this year falls on Dec. 21.
The program involves raising the $12,000 to $15,000 necessary to ensure well over 100 children can be served each year. This year, some 120 children have been chosen to participate—the most ever, and that is thanks to community support, organizers say.
The children are selected by organizations and schools who make the referrals based on need. The children chosen must be between the ages of 6 and 12, and they can only participate once in the program.
“The families we work with are facing challenges in their life,” Garcia said.
In some cases, those challenges have involved interaction with law enforcement, which highlights the program’s aim of building positive relationships and allowing children to see law enforcement in a different way.
“Sometimes at the beginning, the children will be afraid of us,” Perez said, “but at the end they are holding our hands. They are so happy. They hug you, and that makes it all worth it.”
Once the children are referred to the program, volunteers will deliver the invite card to those chosen, which committee members said adds additional meaning to the program in that they can see first hand the challenges some of the children face.
“It brings everything into a different perspective,” Perez said. “Finding these kids and delivering it to them takes it to a whole new level.”
Struckmeyer said, “I’ve had families tell me ‘God bless you’ when I’ve delivered the card.”
On the day of the event, the children are treated to a lunch prepared at Southwest High School in El Centro where they get to meet the first responders they’ll be shopping with. They also have a visit from Santa Claus himself, who leads the caravan to Target, which has become an important partner in the special day for the children.
With St. Nick in an armored vehicle, waving to crowds of onlookers who gather on nearby streets, the caravan blares their sirens. The children, riding in the law enforcement vehicles, often get to use the vehicle radios to shout Merry Christmas to the onlookers. They also get to operate the sirens as the vehicles head toward their destination.
Once at Target, Santa leads the children into Target where their chance to shop begins. And it’s not just the toy aisles they head for.
“I’ve had kids who said they needed shoes,” Perez said.
Committee members point out it is thanks to the generosity of the community that a program like Shop with a Cop can succeed each year.
That generosity starts with the general public, which helps the program through two fund-raising events during the year. One is a raffle and the other is Tip a Cop event, where those in law enforcement serve food at an area restaurant, usually Chilis in El Centro, and the tips they earn go toward the program.
Then, local agencies, businesses and organization donations provide critical support.
Struckmeyer pointed out there was a year where the program almost folded due to a lack of funds, but when the community learned of the struggles, there was an outpouring of support that helped keep the program going.
Franco added, “They refused to let it die.”
In particular, funding support from the two state prisons in the Valley, Centinela State Prison and Calipatria State Prison, have been key to the program’s ongoing success.
Today, as the program prepares for the Dec. 21 event, the committee members reflect on what the program means to them.
Struckmeyer said it has become part of the tradition of the holidays to make the Shop with a Cop program succeed each year.
Garcia said the program is proof that when it comes to the holidays, “It’s not so much about receiving, it’s about the giving.”