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Police take children on shopping spree during Santa Cop program

Natchez Police Department officer Kimberly Furnace walks out of Walmart with Robin Lunkin, 8, after buying him Christmas presents during the annual Santa Cop event sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police. Nearly 50 other area children participated, each receiving nearly $150 worth of items each. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Natchez Police Department officer Kimberly Furnace walks out of Walmart with Robin Lunkin, 8, after buying him Christmas presents during the annual Santa Cop event sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police. Nearly 50 other area children participated, each receiving nearly $150 worth of items each. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

By Olivia McClure

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ For many children, Christmas presents will arrive on Dec. 24 via reindeer, sleigh and chimney. But on Saturday, some Natchez youngsters got their gifts a little early at checkout lane No. 24 in Walmart.

Santa Claus was nowhere to be found, however. This was the work of Santa Cop, an annual program of the Fraternal Order of Police that pairs nearly 50 needy children with a law enforcement officer to go Christmas shopping.

Natchez Police Department Capt. Tom McGehee said the children are selected by their schools. Their day began early — an officer picked each child up for breakfast at McDonald’s, then they headed to Walmart to choose about $150 worth of presents.

When they finished, families of the Santa Cop shoppers picked up boxes of food in the parking lot.

The program is funded by donations from the community as well as a grant from Walmart, McGehee said. Officers of all local law enforcement agencies, from park rangers to policemen to their spouses, get involved.

“They enjoy giving back,” McGehee said. “There’s officers that wait for this every year.”

Inside the store, excited children pointed to items they wanted — headphones, board games and other toys — while uniformed officers helped them pick out things they needed, such as clothes.

Addison Harrigill, 7, was sitting in the floor, pondering a pair of pink shoes.

“These fit much better,” Addison said. But Adams County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Cal Green knelt and pressed the toe of each shoe to make sure.

“We’ve been going back and forth,” Green said.

Addison changed her mind again, this time lacing up some sparkly purple sneakers. She and Green agreed they were the perfect pair, and the shoes went into the shopping cart already full of clothes, school supplies and hair barrettes.

“You see the looks on their faces,” Green said. “I’ve been doing this 18 years, and I wouldn’t give those back for anything.”

Addison said the trip was a fun, unique experience.

“I’ve never been with a cop before, and I’ve never went shopping with a cop,” she said.

That kind of interaction with law enforcement is important for children, said NPD Capt. Scott Frye.

“They get to see us in different aspect, and that pays off in the long run,” Frye said. “We’re not always the bad guy.”

His wife, Teresa, was at Walmart on Saturday, too, helping him guide children through the store. It was her first year participating in Santa Cop.

“They’re excited,” she said. “One of them asked me, ‘Are we going shopping again tomorrow?’”

While another Santa Cop shopping trip won’t take place until next Christmas, the children who participated have special memories that will last until then.

Michael Keyes, 10, said it wasn’t picking out items that he enjoyed most — it was getting to hang out with an officer. He and ACSO deputy William McConnell purchased some clothes and Legos, as well as a gift for Michael’s sister.

“It’s for the kids. It’s Christmas time, and I feel like donating my time and spending time with these kids…” McConnell paused, before Michael chimed in.

“We’re having fun and spending time together and getting to know each other.”