It has been said that Christmas is about giving from the heart rather than giving from the store, but sometimes, presents matter. Sometimes finances are such that there are few, or no, presents under the tree.
In comes Shop with Cops, events in Oconomowoc and Pewaukee that give the gift of gifts. Local police officers spend a morning shopping with kids, selecting gifts for their parents, enjoying breakfast and visiting with Santa himself.
Not only do these events celebrate the holiday, but they also serve to build positive relationships between officers and the communities they serve.
Setting up shop
The name “Shop with Cops” is widespread nationwide, but there is actually no larger governing organization. Each event is coordinated locally with the goal of helping families in need celebrate the holidays and promoting positive relationships between citizens and law enforcement personnel.
In Lake Country, there are two such events, one coordinated by the city of Oconomowoc, and one organized by a partnership between the village of Pewaukee, city of Delafield and village of Hartland.
“The three departments work together to organize it, but we’ve got officers from the city of Waukesha, the (Waukesha County) Sheriff’s Department, even State Patrol; all sorts of departments participate and help out,” says Capt. Bob Hagen of the Delafield Police Department.
Officer Dawn Cook of the city of Oconomowoc Police Department explains, “There are several Shop with Cops programs around, and we each pick a different Saturday so we can help each other out.”
Cook had participated in the Dodge County Shop with Cops before moving to Oconomowoc in 2008, when she decided to launch the program there. She solicits donations from local businesses year-round, coordinates a brat fry each summer and helps spread the word at various community events.
“We raise anywhere between $4,000 and $5,000 to run the program each year, and the funds that are raised here go back to the children that live in this area,” she says.
In Oconomowoc, the nonprofit program pairs 30 kids with officers from Summit, Oconomowoc Lake, Watertown, Okauchee, Dousman and other jurisdictions for a fun-filled morning. “It’s four hours, but it goes really, really fast,” she says.
The program is open to kids ages 5 to 10, and there is no household income threshold to participate. “The only thing we put a limit on is that a child can only participate two years because there are always more needy families to help,” she says.
Cook contacts local schools and churches and asks them to reach out to families they think could benefit from the program. Applications are distributed and collected during business hours at the city of Oconomowoc Police Department between Nov. 1 and Dec. 1.
It takes a village
There is no shortage of volunteers — officers and community members alike — during the event. In Oconomowoc, Oconomowoc Transport donates two school buses, and two drivers donate their time to ferry the kids and cops between the Community Center and Kmart. Kmart even sets up special registers to check out the kids as quickly as possible.
“The children buy a gift for each household family member, and they can buy a toy for themselves,” explains Cook. Parents are informed of the budget and store beforehand to help kids prepare a list. Depending on the amount of donations the program receives, the budget ranges from $100 to $150 per child.
Each officer shops with his or her assigned child, selecting gifts within the budget. “Very rarely do we see anything that’s a want instead of a need,” she says. Household items and clothing are typical. After shopping, the group returns to the Oconomowoc Community Center for breakfast, games and a visit from Santa.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW Post 2260) Ladies Auxiliary in Oconomowoc serves pancakes, sausage and applesauce to the crowd. Lenore Otto, whose husband is retired from law enforcement and now owns and operates Bulldog Towing & Recovery in Oconomowoc, has been involved since 2009.
“We kept connections, and when (Cook) came in for donations one day, I offered the auxiliary services,” explains Otto. “The other volunteers who have helped me over the years, they watch (the morning unfold) and go, ‘Sign me up for next year. I’ll be there to help.’ They want to be there. They want to give something back to the community.”
Otto especially enjoys seeing what presents the kids come back with. “How many times did you think of your kid bringing you a snow shovel? That was one of them this past year. But I guess Mom or Dad needed it, and they knew it, so that’s what they bought,” she recalls.
Volunteers from area fire departments and churches also help wrap the gifts and run arts and crafts stations. The morning is filled with heartwarming moments that make Otto a devoted volunteer.
“It’s fun to watch the officers interact with the kids, playing tic-tac-toe and answering their questions, and the kids realize these are your friends. And in the end, watching (the kids) when they go up by Santa and get that one extra gift, that’s really neat,” she says.
“Each kid gets a backpack from Santa with knickknacks to take home,” says Cook. For the past few years, Hagen’s mom has also knit hats for the kids. “She believes in the program and is just that kind of person,” says Hagen.
Hagen himself is, too. “The first time, four or five years ago, I had such a good time (in Pewaukee), and I knew the city of Oconomowoc’s event was the next week, so I contacted Officer Cook and asked if she needed any more help. Since then, I’ve gone to both (events). I always have those two weekends circled on my calendar way ahead,” he says.
He participates for two main reasons, he says. First, Shop with Cops is a great way for kids who have had negative interactions with the police to have a positive encounter. “The other reason is completely selfish: I just enjoy doing it,” he says.
Chief Mike Hartert of the Summit Police Department echoes those sentiments. He has participated in Oconomowoc’s event for the past three years. “Any time that we have an opportunity to connect with kids, it pays dividends in the future. It lets them know we’re not the bad guys; we’re their friends, and they can always come to us if there’s a problem,” he says.
“By the time it’s all done, I’m in a very good mood, and I feel very good about the connections I made,” he adds.
The interaction, while limited to a single morning, can have a lasting impact. The first year that Hagen participated in Oconomowoc, he was paired with a girl who, at first, just wanted to hang out with her friends.
“Once we started shopping, I got to know her and her situation,” he says; her family had had some negative experiences in the past with police. But the pair’s relationship had changed by the end of the morning. “I went to say goodbye, and she had actually colored a picture in her coloring book and put ‘Officer Hagen you rock,’” he says. The picture still hangs in his office.