Gainesville Police Chief Brian Kelly stood in front of dozens of children Wednesday afternoon, their eyes wide in anticipation.
“Does anybody have thoughts about what they want to get?” Kelly asked.
“Yes!” replied one eager kid. “I have lots!”
That kicked off the 11th annual Shop with a Gainesville Cop event at Wal-Mart in Gainesville.
Cops and kids flooded aisles of toys, electronics and clothing to peruse and pick out Christmas presents.
Police spokesman Cpl. Joe Britte said having the kids actually shop with the cops — besides being more in line with the event’s name — made for better bonding than past years, when gifts from lists were prepicked and wrapped.
“I think it made the event more intimate,” he said. “It’s more of a one-on-one thing with the kids, with the parents — and the parents know exactly what their kids need.”
A bump in funds partially allowed for the change, Britte said. Corporate and community sponsors Wal-Mart, Pilgrim’s Pride and the Gainesville Rotary Club helped police furnish $4,400 to be spent on 25 families.
One special shopper this year was 7-year-old Jeremiah Williams, who was pulled from his burning home by police officers in early November. The family lost nearly all of its possessions in the fire.
Jeremiah and his family shopped with the officers who rescued him.
“They totally lost everything in that fire, and it was a great opportunity for us to reach out to them and be able to share this event with them,” Kelly said.
Officers identify families in need by reaching out to schools, Britte said.
“The school resource officers get help from the counselors to pick the children from the school system,” he said.
Britte thumbed costs into a calculator as Shunwann Redding helped her three kids grab gifts from different sections of the store.
Redding reminded her kids they’d have to wait until Christmas before they enjoyed their haul.
“I can’t wait to rip it open like this!” her 8-year-old daughter Destiny said, mimicking tearing away wrapping paper with gusto.
Across the aisle at apparel, Veronica Magana’s sons Marvin, 7, and Rodrigo, 4, appeared to have decompressed from the initial fervor of shopping, and sat content in shopping carts as their mom picked out clothes.
“Is she the best mom ever? I bet she is,” said Doug Whiddon, an officer on the Pro-Active Community Enforcement Unit, as the two compared action figures.
“They’re having a great time, getting lots of goodies — it’s pretty cool actually,” Whiddon said.
It was his first year doing Shop with a Gainesville Cop, and the officers have fun, too, he said.
“I think we all have a good time,” Whiddon said. “Really this is what the season is all about anyway. It’s good to see children enjoying themselves and get a few things that will make for a great Christmas.”
Britte agreed the event brought as much joy to the cops as it did to the kids.
“Just to see the smiles on their faces means a whole lot to us,” Britte said.