This year, Santa wasn’t wearing his traditional red and white uniform for ten Wahkiakum County kids. Instead he donned a plaid shirt and khaki pants as he stood inside the Ocean Beach Highway Walmart on Saturday.
Beau Renfro, the Wahkiakum County emergency management coordinator, worked with Sheriff Mark Howie to organize the department’s first annual “Shop with a Cop” event for low-income children. The event pairs sheriff deputies with local children and sends them shopping for Christmas gifts for their family with donated money.
Several Cowlitz County-based law enforcement agencies and fire departments have hosted similar “Shop with a Cop” events for years. Howie said he’s always wanted to host one for Wahkiakum, but the small rural county lacked the resources to generate enough donations for an event of its own.
But two weeks ago, Howie said Renfro approached him after raising donations through his company, Island Pearls Live. The company sells pearls online to an international customer base. Donors from as far as New Zealand and Ireland pitched in to raise $4,000, according to the Island Pearl’s website.
Howie worked with the Cathlamet-based STAR program to find ten low-income kids to participate. Each kid buddied up with a Wahkiakum County sheriff deputy, and the pairs rode together in separate vehicles for the 30-minute drive to Longview to give them time for one-on-one conversations, Howie said.
“This is a great way to interact with kids,” Howie said. For many children and teens, it may be the only time they meet a uniformed officer when they’re not in the middle of a personal or family crisis.
“They can totally interact with us and see us as the good guys. You ask any cop to do this once and they’re hooked,” he said with a smile.
Twelve-year-old Clayton Scuito’s shopping cart was filled with a jacket, kitchen items and a mini air hockey table.
“This is like how much we would spend on a whole Christmas,” Clayton said, tapping the side of the air hockey table, which cost about $30.
For sixteen-year-old Belle Cousins of Naselle, this was the first time she’s been able to buy gifts for her whole family and a few friends. She loaded her cart with a fuzzy blanket, a “Minions” coloring book, a pillow, candles and water bottles with her favorite smiley face poo emoji on the side.
“It’s really fun … I normally don’t have that much money to buy gifts,” Belle said. It was especially meaningful because her two-year old younger brother is starting to remember things more, and she’s hoping to make this Christmas special, she said.
Belle was paired with Deputy Catherine Hager who tallied all the cart’s items. Each kid had about a $250 budget, Hager said.
“If we can help one family’s Christmas be better in our county, then the effects will benefit us all,” Hager.
After the morning of shopping, deputies hosted the children for a lunch at Sharon’s Pizza Mill in Cathlamet while a team of STAR volunteers wrapped the gifts.
Extra donations were used to fulfill 19 more requests for Christmas presents from needy children through the STAR program.
Earlier in the day, Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue hosted 20 elementary-aged kids for a similar event at the same Walmart, and other law enforcement agencies have hosted “Shop with a Cop” events for the last few weeks, too.
“It gives kids an opportunity to interact with a first responder, and it’s just something fun for our first responders to do,” Cowlitz Chaplain Doug Fields said.
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