A gift of holiday spirit
The sound of blaring sirens filled the air as the procession of vehicles made their way through the streets of Mountain Home. Fire trucks led the way with police cruisers, sheriff's squad cars and other emergency vehicles following close behind.
It took several minutes for the vehicles to make their way across town. There wasn't a need to hurry since it wasn't an emergency.
Instead, the procession was a way of heralding the start of a special day for nearly 120 children in the Mountain Home area. It was part of a yearly tradition that brought the gift of hope to these youngsters in time for Christmas.
Celebrating its 16th anniversary, Mountain Home's Shop With A Cop program provided that hope. It gave these children a chance to buy gifts for themselves and their loved ones -- a luxury none of them could otherwise afford.
In each case, these youngsters come from families facing extreme financial problems as the holidays approach, event organizers said. Without this program, these children faced the possibility to seeing nothing beneath their Christmas trees on Dec. 25.
As part of the shopping experience, these youngsters pair up with representatives from city, county and state law enforcement and emergency service agencies as well as airmen from Mountain Home Air Force Base.
The day started with a break from tradition with the local Elk's Lodge hosting the start of Saturday's scheduled events -- a hot breakfast provided by the local McDonald's restaurants. The meals are normally served at Mountain Home Junior High School but a scheduled function at the school that morning prompted the change in venue.
Shelly Blake, who manages the McDonald's restaurant on American Legion Boulevard, admits that she's lost count on how many times that she's helped serve breakfast at the yearly events.
"I just wanted to help out, but it's such a good thing that I have to keep coming back," Blake said.
Many times, the experience leaves her in tears as she watches volunteers make a difference in the lives of these children, she added.
To a point, the meal time allowed the chaperones to introduce themselves to their "foster children" and to learn more about one another. Despite some hesitation, the looks on these children's faces went from uncertainty to smiles of joy.
At one table, Deputy Sandi Bish from the Elmore County Sheriff's Office watched as Charles busied himself coloring a Christmas scene as they waited for the other youngsters to finish their breakfast.
Nearby, Deputy Robert Wade looked over Kiersten's shopping list. In addition to a pair of extra large socks for her father, the nine-year-old hoped to find a stuffed puppy for her younger sister with additional gifts for her older siblings. While she hoped to get a guitar for herself, Kiersten seemed content with the opportunity of getting a microphone and perhaps a pair of high heel shoes.
Following breakfast, the children and their chaperones packed into squad cards and other emergency vehicles parked in front of the lodge. With lights flashing and sirens blaring, the procession of vehicles made their way to the local Wal-Mart.
Shortly after they arrived, most of the children made a beeline to the toy department. In many cases, they found a gift or two for themselves but focused on finding something for their brothers or sisters.
"First, I've got to get presents for everyone else," said Alex. The eleven-year-old had already picked out a baby doll for his younger sister and had a set of toy cars for his younger brother.
In another aisle, Tech. Sgt. Justin Devaney pushed a shopping cart through the toy aisle as Kimberly continued to shop for gifts. She already had a baby doll for her sister and tracked down a basketball for herself.
Meanwhile, David had darted off to other departments along with his escort, Airman 1st Class Ashley Clapp, a security forces specialist from the base. The 11-year-old planned to pick up a small necklace for his mother while he had his eyes set on a pair of earrings for his sister. With the gifts in hand, they headed out to find an electric razor for his father.
On the other end of the store, Marian Mitchell with the Mountain Home Citizens on Patrol chapter was helping Natasha finish her shopping list.
"This is for my (older) sister," the nine-year-old said as she held up a fleece blanket. Also in the cart was a purple dress she had selected for her younger sister.
Natasha herself simply wanted a new alarm clock.
While many of this year's volunteers had participated in the Shop With A Cop program from the beginning, others like Airman Camille Goodsell were making their first appearance at the annual event.
"It seemed like a good thing to do -- to give back to the community and to have fun with these kids," the airman said.
Goodsell was one of many airmen that responded to a message from Tech. Sgt. Chris Price, who headed an effort to find volunteers from the Air Force base.
"Anybody you can think of is out here today," Price said. These volunteers included security forces airmen, civil engineers and logistics specialists.
"Being able to see the kids and how happy they are is what this is all about," said Price, who participated in a similar event when he was stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
The Shop With A Cop program remains successful due to the contributions of a "very generous community," said Mary Morin, who oversees its fundraising effort. She also credited the local department store, which provides a significant amount of time and manpower to keep things running so smoothly each year.
The Shop With A Cop program illustrates just how much the Mountain Home community cares about those most in need, said city police chief Nick Schilz. With so many people, businesses and private organizations involved each year, it emphasizes the tremendous amount of support the community provides, he added.
With their shopping complete, the children and their chaperones made their way to another team of volunteers that individually wrapped each present. In most cases, these children had spent their money on gifts for their families with nothing left for themselves.
Among them was McKenzie, who was shopping with her escort, Deputy Trent Page. Just two weeks prior, the youngster was stricken by a series of epileptic seizures that continued to worsen over the next few days. Currently taking medicine to combat the condition, the youngster remained adamant of buying gifts specifically for her family.
As she shopped, the deputy asked McKenzie if there was something she wanted. The youngster hesitated for a while before she reluctantly admitted that all she wanted was a bicycle.
Volunteers helped make her wish come true.
As she went to meet with her mother, the youngster rolling her new bike through the store. There was just one problem: The bike wouldn't fit into the family's car.
The deputy made sure the bike made it safely to McKenzie's home.