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Full carts, fuller hearts at Shop with a Cop
Annual events give Christmas cheer to needy families, smiles to officers
Gainesville police officer Joel Carter and Andrew Lock talk about clothes being purchased Saturday at the Target Store on Shallowford Road during the annual Shop with a Cop program. - photo by Tom Reed

Bradley Bryant's father told him he could only buy one toy — and Bradley was going to make that one toy count. For 30 minutes, the 8-year-old wandered the aisles of Target, hitting the buttons on every car and truck within his reach.

If you don't buy one soon, his dad, David, warned, you're getting a pink pony.

So Bradley decided on a new Hot Wheels set and proudly showed it to Officer Dallas Van Scoten, his shopping buddy for the day at the Fraternal Order of Police's Shop with a Cop event.

Saturday at the Gainesville Target, more than 35 kids from families down on their luck were given a $150 shopping spree to spend on essentials like warm winter clothes, pants and shoes and, of course, at least one toy.

Down the road in Flowery Branch, a similar event held Saturday by the Flowery Branch Police Department at Walmart brought an early Christmas for five kids. There, each child received $400, which many used to also buy gifts for their families.

Issaac Velazquez, 8, of Flowery Branch stood in front of a locked glass cabinet in the electronics department for several minutes. He wanted to get something for his 2-year-old niece, Rebecca Raudalez, sitting in the cart nearby.

"I want to get a DVD player for her," he said. "She uses mine. I take it away, but she cries."

Flowery Branch Mayor Mike Miller was impressed by the generosity of the children as he pushed a cart overfull with toys.

"All the kids what to get something for their relatives," he said. "They're not selfish. I think that's great."

As parents followed close behind their excited children, many shared a singular message of thanks. Without this event, they said they wouldn't have a Christmas.

"It helps out so much it would make you cry," said Vonda Dover after going through the checkout line with her children at Target. "You worry about them at Christmas."

But the officers, many of whom were participating in the event for their second or third time, said they receive just as much from the day as the children.

"I just love the kids," Van Scoten said. "They tear at your heartstrings. You just want to get everything and throw it in the cart and take it up there and buy it for them."

At the day's start, standing near a line of shopping carts at the store's entrance, some of the kids were shy and quiet. But most quickly warmed up to their uniformed shopping partners.

"Don't you know where you're going?" Gainesville Officer Joel Carter said with a laugh as he followed 13-year-old Andrew Lock aimlessly around Target.

"I don't know where the clothes are," Andrew yelled back. "I know the toys."

Spending a few hours with a officer helps these kids feel less intimidated by officials, organizers said.
Flowery Branch Officer David Jackel gave a lot of cheerful encouragement as he shopped with Issaac.

"Pick out anything you want," he said. "Take your time, we've got plenty of time."

Jackel's wife, Lacretia, and their toddler son, Warren, come along for the event every year. As they walked through the aisles, Lacretia kept tally of the items in the cart.

"It's real exciting," she said. "It lets children know that police officers have children, too."

Both the Gainesville and Flowery Branch events were funded mostly by donations from private individuals, businesses or churches.

When all the items had been scanned and bagged, tax put the totals a bit above what the organizers had expected. But as the officers handed over the final payment, they weren't worried about the dollars and cents.

"It's a thrill," said FOP President Lowell McNeal. "This is my Christmas right here."