Youngsters’ squeals of delight will resonate throughout the Walmart in East Marlborough Township on Saturday, Dec. 3. More than 100 children from the Chester County Family Academy, a K-2 charter school in West Chester, will receive a law-enforcement escort to the store -- highlighted by wailing sirens and flashing lights, for the “Third Annual Shop with the Sheriff.” At the store, they will be treated to a coveted retail experience to ensure that they get the perfect gifts for their family members.
The event got its genesis in Coatesville, where Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh and her deputies participated for years in “Shop with a Cop,” an excursion that provides underprivileged children with money to buy holiday gifts. The process includes members of law-enforcement who double as personal shoppers.
Several years ago, Welsh, a board member of the Chester County Family Academy, mused aloud about emulating the program for the charter school and received immediate encouragement, especially from Deputy Sheriff Lt. Harry McKinney and Lee DiMattia, the office’s bookkeeper, who also helps with outside events. Both have served as chief organizers ever since.
“This event gets better and more exciting each year,” Welsh said. She explained that the “pure joy reflected on the children’s faces” represents a priceless experience all by itself, but the event produces benefits that extend far beyond the students’ excitement.
“These beautiful children have a fun-filled day shopping and having lunch with the deputies. It is a time when law enforcement and the community come together and get to know each other,” Welsh said. “You cannot begin to quantify or measure the longstanding positive effect on everyone.”
DiMattia said preparations began during the summer, and once again, more than 100 volunteers would be lending their support. The event will include a plethora of activities, ranging from breakfast and lunch to caroling and photos with Santa.
The students will gather at the Providence Church in West Chester at 8 a.m. and will board buses at 9 a.m., with a scheduled arrival time of 9:45 a.m. at Walmart. At the store, they will assemble in a room filled with activities, such as movies and coloring books, to await their turns shopping with a deputy or the sheriff herself.
Students will come to the event with a wish list of gift ideas for family members and a $100 budget. Practical choices such as pajamas, slippers, blankets, scarves and gloves typically dominate the lists. If money is left over, students are encouraged to pick out a little something for themselves.
Lance Ransom, Walmart’s manager, has said that both shoppers and his employees look forward to the event, and repeat volunteers all have heartwarming stories about their interactions with the children. Chester County Sheriff Chief Deputy George P. March said he was particularly touched by one young girl last year who had some money left over, picked out a doll stroller for herself, and then had a change of heart and wanted to continue shopping. March said she put the stroller back and then explained the reason: “I have a cousin who needs something more than I do.”
Once the gifts are selected, the shopping teams will head to designated cash registers, where another crew of volunteers will write the recipients’ names on the gifts, load them into large bags with the students’ names, and transport them to the gift-wrapping station set up at the church, which will serve as the starting and end point for the day’s festivities.
DiMattia said half of the volunteers, including about 25 deputy sheriffs, would have duties at the Walmart, while the other half, a mix of representatives from the Rotary, Scouts, and church groups, would demonstrate their gift-wrapping prowess at Providence Church, where the students will return at about 1 p.m. for more activities. The program will end at 3 p.m.
The Chester County Family Academy was founded in 1997 to carry out the vision of local philanthropists Dick and Sheila Sanford “to make a difference in the lives of children.” Most of the families, for whom English is a second language, struggle financially but share a strong commitment to the importance of education, according to school officials.
McKinney said sponsors such as Krapf Bus Companies, Wawa, Walmart, Otto’s BMW, Herr’s, Bryn Mawr Trust, Manhattan Bagel, American Pie, Providence Church, and Arthur Hall Insurance, enable the Sheriff’s Office to provide the children with holiday magic.
Members of the media are welcome to join the event at any time between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.