They filed into the Leesburg Wal-Mart one by one early Saturday morning, some appearing quite shy and timid as they rounded the corner to find a sea of uniforms and shiny badges waiting for them.
But they quickly found out that what was waiting for them were friendly, warm people – all of whom had volunteered to spend some quality time with them. And by the time the 14 preselected Leesburg High School students had left the popular store a couple of hours later, smiles were splashed across their faces and they had an extra pep in their step.
Welcome to Shop With A Cop, an annual event for many police departments and sheriff’s offices that pairs law enforcement officers with students for a pre-Christmas shopping spree. This year marked the first time Leesburg officers shopped with high school students. And thanks to a grant from Wal-Mart that gave each one $150 to spend, along with a slew of free breakfast sandwiches provided by Hardee’s, the morning was a huge success.
“This is great,” said Lt. Scott Mack, who was shopping with senior Mariesa Massa. “It gives us an opportunity to give back to the community. And this is a special one because we get to spend time with kids from our community.”
For Mariesa, who was searching for gifts for her four younger siblings, the morning was a special time.
“I really appreciate it because my job doesn’t really help me out enough to be able to do things like this and be able to get my family presents,” she said.
Mack said the kind of selfless attitude displayed by Mariesa is precisely why he likes being a part of Shop With A Cop.
“Almost everyone, just like Mariesa, is buying gifts for someone else in their family,” Mack said. “So it just shows the giving heart of the people that are around us. It’s really an inspiration.”
Meanwhile, Officer Logan Elton was spending the morning shopping alongside senior Joseph Johnson Jr. A Leesburg High School graduate himself, Elton said he had gotten Joseph’s name earlier in the week and was looking forward to helping him pick out items.
“I’ve noticed how we help people and change some lives for some kids,” Elton said. “So I’m going to do what I can for him. It’s a great program.”
Joseph said he found out Friday at school that he’d be taking part in the shopping event and was very happy.
“It’s kind of cool to see a lot of officers out here shopping with us,” he said. “I think it’s the best thing that will probably ever happen. And for the kids that are coming up behind me and will get to do this next year, I hope they have a good time like I have.”
Joseph also was doing his best to spread the Christmas cheer to other members of his family.
“I’m going to think about them because they thought about me,” he said.
Senior Destiny Roberts was shopping alongside Officer Travonte Kitchen, who serves as the school resource officer at Beverly Shores Elementary School. She also was looking for some gifts for her family members, but when asked what she hoped to purchase, a shy grin came over her face as she said, “No idea. No idea.”
Kitchen, also a Leesburg High School graduate, couldn’t stop smiling, especially as he and Destiny were photobombed by Santa Claus while talking about the importance of Shop With A Cop.
“It’s a phenomenal program,” Kitchen said. “It gives me that opportunity to get out into the community and do some outreach.”
Officer Adam Digiacomo, who was shopping with freshman Javarcei Dawkins, a junior varsity basketball player, agreed.
“It’s helpful and nice to be able to pull the community into the police department and into the businesses around town,” he said. “It’s definitely something that I think every city should have and more police departments around the state of Florida should definitely think about doing it.”
Several times throughout the morning, officers – all of whom were off-duty – could be seen doing something quite special when the tab surpassed $150.
“We had several of the officers that paid out of their own pockets,” said Sgt. Kim Stewart, who handles community services and organized Saturday’s event. “A lot of these kids were getting stuff that they needed, not just what they wanted. I think it kind of touched the officers and they paid the different out of their own pockets.”
Mack was one of those officers.
“One of the things I see every time that I do this, when we walk around the store, they’re looking for gifts for their family members or for things that they need,” he said. “So I don’t ever have a problem with throwing out a couple of extra dollars toward it myself.”
Stewart said she was extremely happy with the way the students conducted themselves while shopping.
“They were well-behaved, very mannerly,” she said. “They were appreciative and seemed to have fun with the officers.”
Mack agreed and added that an event like Shop With A Cop is extremely important when it comes to establishing positive relationships with area children and young adults.
“One of the hard things that we have is getting those positive interactions with the youth,” he said. “So this gives us an opportunity, especially this year having the high school students, to have that positive interaction. And any time you do that, it’s a great thing for us.”