Sumter sheriff’s office targets needy families with holiday cheer

The Sumter County Sheriff’s Office is about more than law enforcement all year long. But its community outreach program really swings into high gear in time for the Christmas season.

The sheriff’s office has three main programs that make Christmas a little brighter for some of the neediest children in Sumter County.

Deputy Josh Green shops with the Morales family.

“All in all, what we do will reach over 600 children,” said Theresa Cooper, community outreach coordinator. “Without the generosity of individuals and the many groups and clubs in The Villages that donate to us this time of year, our holiday programs would not be possible.”

Kids, Cops and Christmas is one of the big programs. Children selected by their school guidance counselors are invited to come out on a Saturday and shop with a police officer.

Children are given $50 gift cards and they do their shopping at area Wal-Marts.
As Lt. Robert Siemer said recently in describing the program to a group, this program not only provides Christmas presents to children, but gives them a positive experience with law enforcement.

“The children start out very shy, hiding behind their mom,” he said. “By the time they have finished shopping, they are hanging onto the officers.”

Nadine Landis, far left, and Sam Landis, in back, are strong supporters of Kids, Cops and Christmas.

The deputies donate their time to participate in the program. One recounted the first year he participated. He was assigned a young girl who was very shy. But they quickly bonded while shopping.

The deputy said he would see the girl off and on as the years went by and they would always speak to each other. Neither one of them has forgotten the experience.

In addition to Kids, Cops and Christmas, the Sumter County Sheriff’s office provides a Christmas party at the Croomacoochee Community Center, which is located in the southeast corner of Sumter County. The children in that community are presented with toys and their families are given food boxes with everything thing they need to make a holiday dinner.

“Some of these kids would not get a Christmas if it wasn’t for the wonderful community involvement we have here in Sumter county,” Siemer said.

The third avenue of helping families out during the holidays evolved on its own. As deputies visit homes for whatever reason and see families that are struggling, they bring it to Cooper’s attention. She then makes a list and close to Christmas, the deputies return with presents and toys for the children and a food box.

Ann Pelle, left, captain of The Villages Twirlers and Drum Corps, and her granddaughter, 10-year-old Madison Verbanick, deliver toys for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office to distribute.

Cooper said the situations some of the families are in can really break someone’s heart. She remembered a family of three children last year whose mother had just died and they were being moved in with their grandmother. “We typically help different families each year,” said Cooper. “But we will be checking in on them again this year.”

Cooper said the sheriff’s office plans to visit about 50 families.

“We try to give them the whole experience and atmosphere of Christmas with presents, food to make a holiday meal and even some decorations,” she said.

Those who would like to participate in helping families in need can make a monetary donation or gift a new, unwrapped toy or present. The drop-off point is the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office Villages Annex at 803 E. County Road 466, at the corner of Morse Boulevard. Donations can be dropped off Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call Cooper at (352) 689-4600.

The holidays are special for children who participate in the Kids, Cops and Christmas program.