MARIETTA - Police cruisers from the Washington County Sheriff's Office pulled into the Marietta Kmart parking lot Saturday morning, stirring some interest from local Christmas shoppers as officers escorted 22 children into the department store.
"We've done this for several years now, and every time people come in to see why so many police cars are here," said Kmart manager Lori Posey.
The officers - some accompanied by their wives - were on a mission to make Christmas brighter for some area families through the Fraternal Order of Police Gold Star Lodge 188's Cops with Kids program.
Supported by local individuals, businesses and organizations, the annual program provides kids in need from across Washington County with a holiday shopping trip to Kmart.
"It was really great. These kids were excellent," Posey said. "We also provide Santa Claus who walks the sales floor, interacting with the children and handing out goody bags."
Detective Sgt. Mark Johnson said the F.O.P. purposely seeks out children who may not be eligible for holiday programs through local charitable organizations.
"These kids are usually recommended by people such as teachers or others who know about their situations and give us a phone call," he said. "We really try to help kids who may otherwise be left out of other programs. And we try to help different children every year."
Approximately $300 per child is spent on the annual shopping trips, and for the last several years the F.O.P. has also purchased $100 gift cards that are distributed to foster children through the local children's services office.
"We probably buy 30 to 40 gift cards," Johnson said. "So we're able to help a total of 50 to 60 kids every year."
He said Saturday's shopping event also gives children a chance to interact with uniformed police officers in a positive way.
"Sometimes the only time they see an officer is when we're placing someone under arrest," Johnson said. "This helps them see us in a more positive light."
Posey said the annual Kmart shopping trip inspires others to get involved, too.
"One customer in the cashier's line asked what was going on," she said. "When we told him he went right up to one of the deputies and made a donation to the program."
Funding traditionally comes from such personal contributions, as well as donations from area businesses and organizations, like the Parkersburg-Marietta Contractors Association that recently gave $1,100 to the F.O.P. Cops with Kids program.
But the largest funding source is an annual auction, usually held each November, for which local businesses donate items that are sold to the public to raise money for the Christmas shopping event.
"Due to the economic conditions the auction wasn't held this year," Johnson said. "But thanks to previous auctions and donations we've had a reserve fund to draw from, so there was never a chance we weren't going to have a Cops with Kids event. And it will continue."
"We've skipped a year for the auction before," he added. "The last time was probably in 2004 when there had been so much flooding in downtown Marietta."
He said FOP members will begin as early as next spring to contact businesses for donations of items to be sold in the 2012 auction.
"The auction is a lot of fun, and the amount raised varies widely from year to year, but it usually brings between $10,000 and $20,000," Johnson said.