Eight years ago, a Tacoma elementary school student was heading for trouble, with a stop at a crummy Christmas along the way. The school counselor was worried. The kid needed a boost, and someone to look up to, someone to prove to him that he was a valued member of the community.
A Tacoma police officer stepped up.
Armed with a Target gift card, the officer took the child to Shop With A Cop. By the time they were done, the officer had made the child's Christmas and re-adjusted his future.
This year, that child's mother called Det. Bill Foster with thanks, and an offer to help another child.
“She said Shop With A Cop had made such a difference in her child's life, she wanted to give back,” Foster said. “It was very impactful. This is one of the best ways an officer can be a hero to a child.”
That, Foster said, is why Shop With A Cop celebrated its 22nd anniversary at Tacoma's Target on Saturday. That is why police departments across the country have similar programs, and why an officer who volunteers once will almost surely make a habit of it.
“In the 1990s, a couple of officers wanted to do something for the community, so they approached Tacoma Police Union Local 6,” Foster said.
The union members liked the idea and contributed money to support it for a few years. In the mid-1990s officers registered Shop With A Cop as a 501c3 non-profit to attract additional donations so they can work with more kids. Foster has been leading the effort as a volunteer for six years, and has expanded the program’s financial base.
Target, which has hosted the event from the beginning, welcomes the children with a breakfast and a stuffed Christmas stocking. The company also donates $1,500. Foster has heard that Tacoma's Target has the oldest and largest Shop With A Cop event in the nation.
The police union donates $1,000, and all City of Tacoma employees can make donations through payroll deduction. Foster calculates that a $5.71 deduction per pay period will cover a child's Christmas. Or, like the police department employee who wrote a $400 check to cover two children, employees can make a straight donation.
The public, like the mom who made the thank-you call, also contributes.
“A couple of older ladies in town will send us $25,” Foster said.
These are not affluent women, he noted. They call to make sure the check got there, and to talk about how happy they are to be part of the program.
“It's precious,” he said. “It's precious.”
With support like that, Shop With A Cop invited 80 children this year, all of them aged 7 to 11 and nominated by their elementary school counselors. The police department does not take applications from families.
“These are kids who need a little help,” Foster said.
Some are in families who have lost income, a parent or housing and have nothing to spend on school clothes, coats or shoes, much less Christmas. You can see the hard times reflected in their purchases with the $200 gift card.
“A lot of kids shop for the family as a whole and really don't shop for themselves, but for their siblings,” Foster said. “Their main shopping is for clothing, underwear, pajamas and socks, and toys for their siblings, and maybe a game.”
Veteran cops know that, and warn colleagues who are new to the event that their hearts might melt. They see kids decide against buying a present for themselves – and being happy because their brothers and sisters will have something. That's when many cops step in to buy a gift for their young shopping partner.
“Here's what's ironic,” Foster said. “Police are very thick-skinned on the emotional level. They see on the news what it's like in some other nations, but when they do this, they see what it's like for some people in Tacoma. I tell them, you're not a hero until you go out with one of these kids. You don't realize how much they look up to you. This is a significant event in their lives.”
If they don't believe him, he'd be happy to let that mom to tell them about the lifetime of difference a Tacoma police officer made one Saturday morning eight years ago.