'Tis the time of giving for more than 300 officers from local, state and federal agencies.
On Dec. 1, men and women from at least 25 San Diego law enforcement agencies volunteered for the annual Shop with a Cop event by pairing up with underprivileged children to share a special holiday shopping experience.
For the last 19 years, children 12 years and younger have been bused to SeaWorld where they are provided breakfast and a live show, then go to Target to spend $100 on Christmas presents for themselves and their family.
The purpose of the annual event is to introduce youth to law enforcement personnel and create a positive relationship that will hopefully last the rest of their lives.
The children are identified by schools, churches and social service agencies and chosen by STAR/PAL, a nonprofit police athletic league that offers free youth programs.
Children also participate in a law enforcement caravan from SeaWorld to Target on Rosecrans in Point Loma for a morning of shopping with their partner in crime.
While the event is fully funded by grants and donations, the program strives to raise $30,000 to accommodate at least 300 children each year.
Approximately a dozen officers from the Chula Vista Police Department participated in the event, including Chula Vista Police Capt. Gary Wedge, who has participated in the event several times.
“It’s so much fun,” Wedge said. “I’ve personally always had a passion for working with kids, so that’s why this appeals to me so much.”
Wedge said the event provides an opportunity to help underprivileged kids.
“You’re giving kids an opportunity to experience something that most of them have never experienced and many never will, to go on basically what amounts to a shopping spree,” he said. “It’s giving back to the community … there’s far more to policing than arrests and citations and preventing crime. The outreach is every bit as important as the enforcement component.”
Chula Vista Police officer Alan de la Pena helps coordinate the department’s effort for the event.
“We make sure we have officers to participate, the organizers are aware of our numbers coming into the event…” de la Pena said. “We have to get the numbers early to ensure there are enough officers for the kids.”
De la Pena attends monthly meetings and works fundraisers leading up the event, which he said is a yearlong effort.
“…Kids get to spend half of a day with a police officer and, in my opinion, that’s what makes it really appealing,” de la Pena said. “…Police officers take a good portion of the day and make a difference in the lives of 300-plus less fortunate kids ... to see these kids come off the bus and see their attitude when they meet the officers is really special.”
De la Pena said shopping with the kids is a humbling experience.
“One year I had a kid who was more interested in getting stuff for her siblings and grandparents and mom than she was in getting things for herself,” he said. “And so often in our line of work we see just the opposite… They’re thankful for what they’re getting and they’re not always thinking about themselves.”
He also said, after creating a bond it’s difficult to walk away.
“It’s kind of bittersweet at the end of the day when you have to put the kid back on the bus … you want to know where this kid’s going,” de la Pena said.
The event is coordinated by more than 25 county law enforcement agencies, including San Diego, Chula Vista, National City, El Cajon, La Mesa, California Highway Patrol, the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and several others.