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Chester County Press

Christmas giving in Kennett Square

12/06/2014 04:06PM ● By J. Chambless

Sheriff Carolyn Bunny Welch helped organize the 'Shop With the Sheriff' event on Saturday.

Ninety children from the Chester County Family Academy had quite a day on Saturday, beginning with a police escort aboard two school buses to the Walmart store in Kennett Square for a shopping spree, and ending with a party and a visit with Santa Claus.

It was all part of the first "Shop With the Sheriff" event that was put together by Chester County Sheriff Carolyn Bunny Welsh, Deputy Harry McKinney, and officers from the Sheriff's Department.

Anticipation was running high at the store on Saturday morning as sirens heralded the arrival of a long line of police vehicles and two busloads of wide-eyed students from the West Chester school, which serves underprivileged families. Wearing matching yellow shirts, they were escorted off the buses and greeted warmly by Welsh and other officers, who gathered the group inside the entrance of the store. They were taken to the store's employee break room, where they watched a movie and colored while, one by one, they were called by an officer and walked through the store with their gift lists in hand. Each student had $100 to spend -- $50 supplied by the Sheriff's Office and donations, matched with $50 from Walmart. The money was to be spent on family members of the children, and the lists were drawn up in advance.

Susan Flynn, the CEO of the Chester County Family Academy, said plans for the big day started in June. Sherif Welsh is on the board of directors for the school, and when she heard about the needs of the students, the plan for "Shop With the Sheriff" was born.

"We made the gift lists a homework assignment for the children," Flynn said during the event. "When you see what these families ask for -- things like a toaster -- you realize that every one of these families really needs this event."

Many of the children at the school have a family member who is in prison, and given the recent nationwide storm of controversy surrounding the deaths of two men during police confrontations, the timing of "Shop With the Sheriff" was ideal, but poignant. Several of the officers noted how the strained relations between police and the public are a painful matter for every officer, and events like the shopping day may help to build bridges with children, some of whom have had only scary interactions with law enforcement.

As each officer took a child by the hand and wheeled a shopping cart up and down the aisles of the store, other shoppers stopped to smile, and employees pointed out where to find items on the children's gift lists. Some of the younger children got the rare treat of riding inside the cart, while others headed off purposefully, leading the way.

Jessica DeLeon was escorted by officer Ashley Bosch. Jessica proudly pointed out her new teeth to Bosch as they set out to shop. After she completed her shopping, there was still some money left on her gift card, so Jessica decided to buy her mother some candles, "in case the lights go out," she said.

When they got to the checkout counter, Jessica beamed and hugged officer Bosch, telling her, "I never had 'Shop With the Sheriff' before, but you're the best sheriff!'"

Sheriff Welsh made several trips with children, including Raylynn Bango. "I know your family, and I'm so glad I get to shop with you!" Welsh told Raylynn before they set off to buy her mother a Swiffer mop, and her father a watch, among other presents for her family.

Officer Adam Sibley took Danetzy Araujo on a shopping trip, starting with picking out a skateboard for her brother and ending up with about $60 left over to spend. "Would you like to get something for yourself, or something for your family?" Sibley asked her.

Danetzy thought for a moment and said, "Can I get Christmas decorations?"

Sibley said of course she could, and off they went to pick out sparkling decorations for her home. In the Christmas department, Danetzy stopped short and pointed. "Santa!" she whispered before shyly sitting on Santa's lap for a quick chat.

Carefully spending her money down to the last dollar, Danetzy ended up with a cart full of festive decorations. "In all my years of doing this, that's the first time anyone picked out Christmas decorations," Sibley said, grinning.

Later, Sgt. John McCray of the Chester County Sheriff's Office escorted Ashley Gonzalez around the store, carefully picking out a pocketbook for her mother, and gloves and a fooball for her brother. When told she had some money left over, Ashley decided that what she really wanted was a coat for herself. She left with a brand new, colorful winter jacket. At one point, a woman who happened to be shopping couldn't help assisting the officer on the intricacies of picking just the right color and style of women's pajamas. "This is such a great thing to do," the woman said, smiling.

After a little over two hours of shopping, every child had a sack full of presents and they traveled by bus back to West Chester, where they had a lunch catered by local restaurants at the Providence Church, games and music and a visit with Santa, and gift wrapping by volunteers who got all the purchases ready for Christmas morning.

But the chance to spend a couple of hours with police officers who smiled and made sure they had everything they needed -- and maybe a little toy to take home -- will be paying dividends for years. As the officers waved goodbye, the children beamed and enthusiastically waved back.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail [email protected].