More than 300 kids will be accompanied by law enforcement officers to Walmart in Oneida on Thursday, December 19, for Shop With A Cop, presented by Oneida Police Department and the Scott County Sheriff’s Office.

When the annual Shop With A Cop program takes place Thursday, it will be with the largest number of kids that have ever participated.

Oneida Chief of Police Darryl Laxton said Monday morning that 266 kids had been recommended for the program by their schools. By the end of the day Monday, as final preparations were being made for the big evening of Christmas shopping at the Oneida Walmart, the number had swollen to 304.

That’s significantly more than last year’s 188 participants, and easily the most ever.

“We’ve never had over 200 kids,” Laxton said. “To be honest, it’s more than we can handle. But we’re going to do what we can do. It’s too late to hit reverse.”

Laxton said it’s not an issue of money; between the Oneida Police Department and Scott County Sheriff’s Department, enough money has been raised to cover the costs of the program. The issue is managing that many kids inside Walmart with the law enforcement officers who will be donating their time to make the evening a success.

“We’re going to do everything we can to satisfy all of them, though,” Laxton said.

At 5 p.m. Thursday, kids who have been selected by their schools to participate in the program will gather at Oneida Elementary School for a pizza party. Then, they’ll be bused to Walmart with a parade of emergency vehicles escorting the way — lights blazing and sirens blaring. Inside the store, each child — with adult supervision — will be free to spend up to $100.

The Shop With A Cop program has been going on for well over a decade. It was spearheaded by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. When the FOP chapter disbanded, OPD and the SCSO joined forces to keep the Christmas program alive.

“It was a big challenge,” Laxton said. “But Walmart came to us and said, ‘It won’t happen if you don’t pick it up and get it reorganized.’ I said, ‘We don’t have any money!'”

Walmart was the first to step up to the plate, providing $10,000 in starter funds to help the two law enforcement agencies get started. From there, the money just took care of itself.

“We had some quick, good donors who gave us some money,” Laxton said. “We didn’t have as many kids then; maybe 130-something. But we started with no money less than a month before.”

Besides Walmart, Laxton said, the first donor was The Roost, a bar located in Oneida.

“They did a poker run and handed us $500, and from there it just started pouring in,” he said. “I don’t go in bars, but I appreciated that. They came through and started something that started bringing in money.”

That was five years ago. Today, OPD starts working to raise money in June. There are various fundraisers, the most notable of which is the Sheriff’s Department’s jail-a-thon, which generated more than $15,000 this year.

“We have people who donate who we recognize for their contributions, and there are a whole lot of people who don’t want to be recognized,” Laxton said. “We’ll take the money either way.”

For people who want to donate anonymously, an account is established at United Cumberland Bank. Donations to the program can be made by simply telling a teller inside one of the bank’s branches or at the drive-thru that the money is intended for Shop With A Cop.

Scott County Sheriff Ronnie Phillips said there’s one reason that local law enforcement donate so much of their time annually to make sure Shop With A Cop happens: the kids.

“We do it for them,” Phillips said. “It’s a joy to watch them, to see their faces light up, knowing they can spend and get what they want. It’s awesome.”

Phillips said the entire evening is a treat for the kids who participate.

“I think they like getting to see the lights and the sirens on the patrol cars,” he said. “They really enjoy that.” 

In a culture in which law enforcement is increasingly being viewed negatively thanks to celebrities, social media and some politicians, the Shop With A Cop program makes a difference by showing kids the gentler side of law enforcement, hopefully before they’re old enough to get into trouble.

“It has an impact, I think,” Phillips said. He told the story of a 22-year-old man who stopped by his office at the Scott County Justice Center. The man had been a participant of the very first Shop With A cop when he was nine years old. “He just stopped in and thanked me for what we had done,” the sheriff said. “He said that was something he never forgot.”

Phillips said his deputies look forward to participating in the program.

“They all get excited about it,” he said. “They know what kind of an impact it has on the kids, and they enjoy the kids’ faces light up, too.”

Laxton said the most amazing part about participating in the program is watching the kids who selflessly put others’ needs first.

“You’ve got some kids who think about food items, or things for their mom or dad or their grandparents,” he said. “Without any outside influence, they’re thinking of others. It amazes you to see kids react like that.

“When I was a kid, the thought of buying clothes for myself was out the window,” the chief added. “So when I see kids buying things they need out of necessity, those are the ones that touch your heart the most. You see kids who, instead of taking that money and buying a new bicycle, they take it and buy clothes and things they need. It’s hard to not want to duck into one of the aisles and cry. It’s a joyous event, but it’s a sad event at the same time.”