Like many other organizations this year, area Shop With a Cop programs faced COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges. Despite having to get creative for needed funding, changing up how gifts are distributed and not being able to complete shopping sprees with area youth as in years past, the pandemic did not hamper officers’ relentless pursuit of holiday cheer for underserved children.

Shopping by cops, not with

“It is kind of bittersweet this year that we can’t shop with the kids because that is something we all look forward to, but we were able to get Santa to join us so we are getting to go out and deliver gifts for those kids with Santa. We hope that maybe adds to the excitement a little bit this year since things are different,” said Smithville Police’s Kyle Craven of the annual charitable program that typically includes officers spending a day of fun shopping with children for Christmas wish list items and winter clothing.

Because of social distancing guidelines to help prevent the spread of coronavirus this year, rather than taking children on a shopping spree, officers from Smithville, Liberty and Kearney Shop With a Cop programs collected wish lists from each child’s family and did the shopping and gift-wrapping by themselves, delivering the goods after shopping was complete. In Smithville and Kearney, gifts were delivered Dec. 19. In Liberty, gifts were distributed Dec. 12.

“In the past we shopped with the children one on one at Walmart. It was great for the kids and the officers. Then we bussed them along with their gifts back to the police station for a party and gift wrapping with officers and their families,” Lori Sutton, Liberty Police support services supervisor and Liberty Shop With A Cop coordinator said. “This year, we had parents and caregivers give us gift lists for the kids.”

Other changes this year

Other changes the charitable programs dealt with this year included switching fundraising from in-person efforts to virtual options as community events were canceled due to the pandemic.

“We typically get out at the area festivals and do fundraising, but we couldn’t with everything this year so we did some different things. We did reach out to 10 or so businesses and got them to donate. We also did a virtual auction where we asked people to donate items to auction or to just donate or buy items and we did really good with getting donations,” said Craven of Smithville’s efforts. “We did an online fundraiser on Facebook. We were lucky and had a lot of really generous donations with people from all over. We had people here locally and even out in places like Texas. People donated a lot of big items. It has been positive. We raised about $8,000.”

In Kearney, fundraising efforts for 2020 also went contactless, with donations accepted via the Venmo app.

“We did scale it back this year because there were so many variables unknown and we didn’t know how we were going to get it done,” said Kearney officer and program organizer J.D. Garton.

Most years, the Liberty Shop with a Cop day has been a chance to reach more than a dozen kids. This year, police there shopped for eight children due to COVID-19 complications that limited fundraising.

“In the past we were able to do more fundraising, for example, bake sales in City Hall and at some local businesses. Due to COVID-19 and social distancing, we were limited, and did a raffle of a Nintendo Switch this year,” Sutton said. “Also, many of our officers contributed $20 each to the Shop With A Cop program so they could participate in No Shave November. This year we raised a total of $1,295 from the proceeds of these benefits along with donations. In the past we have brought in two to three times as much, and hopefully we can do more next year with more fundraising efforts.”

Despite scaling back, due to community generosity, Garton said officers made it a point to not only provide roughly 20 children with Christmas gifts this winter, but earlier in the year children in need were given meals from local restaurants.

In addition, thanks to the generosity of businesses like Price Chopper in Kearney and Smithville, families participating in the Shop With a Cop program in those cities also were treated to free Christmas meal items that included large turkeys.

“It is a different feeling this year because we couldn’t take (children) shopping personally and we can’t spend that hour or so bonding with them. It is important because kids get to see officers and experience them in a different light, but our program this year means we really tried to focus on those really affected and those who really need it,” said Garton.

Officers from all area programs said their hope each year is to provide for more children so that none, hopefully, go without around the holidays. To do so, donations are needed and are collected throughout the year.

“What’s great about these programs is that all the money stays right here locally in our accounts. All of the money goes toward the kids and their families,” said Garton. “Whatever we don’t use in one year carries over.”

Because of community demand this year, Garton said Kearney officers will have to “step it up” to make sure enough funds are raised for 2021.

“We did have carryover funds from last year so we didn’t have to do much this year, but there will be an impact for next year,” he said.

“We are always grateful for donations to the program,” Sutton said.

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