The huge smiles on the faces of close to 100 children told the special story Thursday night at the Leesburg Resource Center.
That’s because Santa Claus – backed by a cadre of Leesburg police officers decked out in blue holiday hats – had spent quality time with each of them and they were heading home with stomachs full of graciously donated Domino’s pizza and cookies, wrapped gifts and brand new bikes, complete with safety helmets. And perhaps the best part of all – they and their families had just spent a couple of hours with officers who came together to make the whole magical evening possible.
The event clearly showed these families that there are many sides to law enforcement, including people with big hearts and caring attitudes who asked only one thing in return – the opportunity to share in the evening with these beaming children as they strapped on their helmets, mounted those shiny new bikes and pedaled a few feet to get the feel of the gifts they’ll always remember receiving.
“It felt good,” Carver Middle School seventh-grader Shevon Butler said about his new red ride, which came with a matching helmet. “It’s really cool. I was at Wal-Mart and I told my mom I wanted this bike for Christmas. So, she brought me here and I got the bike. I’m going to ride it every day.”
Shevon’s mom, Jennifer Bentley, said it meant a great deal for her son and two of his siblings to receive new bikes at the event. She said she’s a disabled mom and wasn’t going to be able to provide Christmas for her children until this opportunity came long.
“Their sister has a job so she bought them each a toy,” Bentley said. “But I wasn’t going to be able to do anything. I was reaching out to other programs and by time I got in touch with anybody, everything was closed. There was nothing that could be done.”
But that all changed when Bentley found out through Shevon’s school about the bike giveaway event.
“They were like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a program. We can help you out and get you in,” Bentley said. “I was like, ‘Sweet!” Thank God, because it made Christmas for them, honestly.”
Stories like that, Sgt. Kim Stewart said, is precisely why the Leesburg Police Department makes it a point to hold events like the bike and gift giveaway every year.
“A lot of these kids, their families are struggling for one reason or another,” she said. “So we get the information from the schools and we try and help those families out.”
Stewart, who handles community services for the police department and was responsible for putting Thursday’s event together, added that she really enjoys seeing the kids come in – some dressed up for the occasion – to sit in Santa’s lap and receive a special gift before the bikes come out.
“The kids get so excited,” she said. “And Santa even got a couple of notes.”
Senior Officer Alberto Venta, who serves as the school resource officer at Leesburg Elementary, said it’s an event he wouldn’t miss.
“It gives me a warm feeling,” he said, pointing out that somewhere between 20 and 30 students from his school attended the giveaway. “I try to help them out as much as I can while I’m at school. I know some of them are struggling and their parents are struggling. So it just feels great to give back to them.”
Lisa Romanelli, the 16-year-old daughter of Lt. Nick Romanelli, agreed.
“It’s great to see all these kids smiling and having a great time,” said the Eustis High School junior, who has volunteered at the giveaway for the past several years. “I love being able to help out and just make sure they keep those smiles on their faces and do what they need. I love seeing everybody smiling.”
Part of the overall goal of programs like Thursday’s bike and gift giveaway and the recent Shop With a Cop events the department puts on are to show children and their families a different side of law enforcement – especially those who have had run-ins with officers in the past. Stewart said those positive interactions are something she and her fellow officers always look forward to and try extremely hard to foster.
“This kind of changes things,” she said. “It’s very enlightening and very heartwarming. It’s a different side of law enforcement and it’s enjoyable.”
Stewart added that she had run into a woman earlier at the event who had brought her young son to get a bicycle. She said the woman recognized her shortly after arriving at the Resource Center.
“I arrested her numerous times as a youth growing up,” Stewart said. “We would go back and forth, back and forth. She came up and gave me a hug and thanked me. So it makes it all worthwhile.”