In the face of tough circumstances, Jennifer Peterson feared that her children might not have the Christmas she wished for them this year.
Delivering that sad news broke her heart, but after her husband lost his job she felt like they had no other options to afford Christmas presents.
That’s when she received a call that was her saving grace. Peterson was informed last week that her two children were selected by the Athens City School District as participants in this year’s “Shop with a Cop.”
Fifty children in the Athens City School system and about 40 law enforcement officers and firefighters from neighboring areas gathered at Walmart on Sunday afternoon for the annual event. Each child was given a $100 gift card, funded jointly by the Walmart Foundation as well as Athens Police Department.
Jennifer Peterson’s 8-year-old daughter milled through the toy aisles, eyes dancing between Barbie displays and Hatchimals tucked into their packaging. The third-grader was paired with a state highway patrolman. She weaved between shopping carts and other children, decisively pulling items from the shelf that she wanted.
“I’m done,” she told Trooper Zack Tackett after a short bit. “I don’t really want a lot of things. I want to get some stuff for my mom.”
She did just that, spending the remainder of her stipend on gifts for her mom. When they approached the cash register, though, the items went over the allotted $100. Tackett pulled out his own wallet to pay for the extra amount.
“This was my first time doing this,” Tackett said. “I just thought it’d be good to help out some kids, and it was really fun.”
Following their shopping spree, kids hopped into firetrucks and police cruisers and rode down State Street — lights blaring and sirens flashing — to the Athens Community Center. Pizza, snacks and a visit from Santa Claus awaited them.
“It’s great the kids have the opportunity to not only get toys for the holidays, but spend time individually with officers,” said retired APD Capt. Dave Williams, a reserve officer who helps organize the Shop With a Cop event. “They see that we are here to help, and they shouldn’t be frightened of us.”
The annual event is held each year in memory of Steve Kazee, a Walmart loss prevention officer who died in 2013. His family carried on his legacy of Christmas charity toward children, and they even helped raise some of the funds towards the kids’ toys.
The first year benefited 18 children and has grown significantly in the years since. The goal for 2019 is to give this opportunity to 100 local kids, said Athens Walmart Manager Keith Adams.
“We want the officers to know they are our Christmas heroes,” Peterson said. “This means so much to us.”
Children also learned the lesson that giving is a two-way street. As Peterson’s daughter approached Trooper Tackett on Sunday afternoon, the young girl handed him an ornament. It was tucked into a small stocking she and her mom had made for him.
“Thank you so much,” he replied, kneeling down to shake her hand.