The Christmas Spirit

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut, Feature, Kitchen Table Talk, West Knoxville

I did a pretty good job fighting back the tears until the three pairs of sweat pants – adult, size XL – came across the cash register.

After that, I could no longer shrug my shoulders and proclaim, “Well, this isn’t my first rodeo …”

Truth is, it isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been a journalist for 40 years, and I’ve put on the armor of a seen-it-all professional more than once.

I’ve written the stories designed to get East Tennesseans to let go of their purse strings and give to neighbors in need. I’ve visited houses with dirt floors, where the only person with any meat on their bones was the nursing baby. I’ve tagged along on Angel Tree distributions and seen the tears and joy at having presents to put under the tree.

Santa (Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell) talks with some of the kids before the shopping begins.

Shop With a Cop in Blount County, which I was covering for a Knoxville magazine, should have been a time for complaining about the 6 a.m. start time, snapping pictures and adjourning to Cracker Barrel for breakfast.

Here’s the set up: I had taken most of the pictures I would need for the story and interviewed everyone who needed interviewing. It was a special year for Shop With a Cop, an annual event since 1989. First, the day was dedicated to fallen officer Kenny Moats. Second, Steve Stilts, who throws a big street party known as Slimfest every August to raise money for Shop With a Cop, had tracked down Kid No. 1 – Kevin Morgan, and he was coming to the Alcoa Walmart to reunite with Maryville Police and Fire Chief Tony Crisp and retired Blount County Chief Deputy Ron Dunn, the two officers who started the whole program in 1989 by helping Kevin.

Steve Stilts, Maryville Police and Fire Chief Tony Crisp, Kevin Morgan and Retired Blount County Chief Deputy Ron Dunn

Kevin was a 9-year-old little boy at the time, and he had just lost his mother. Crisp and Dunn met Kevin at the Fraternal Order of Police Camp for kids and took him under their wings.

When Christmas rolled around, the two officers passed the hat, picked Kevin up for a Christmas shopping trip, and Shop With a Cop was born. Since then, thousands of children have benefited from the annual shopping trip, designed to help those less fortunate have a better Christmas and to forge good relationships between police and neighborhoods.

This year, 74 children and hundreds of officers from Blount County Sheriff’s Office, Maryville and Alcoa Police, 911 offices plus Walmart and community volunteers were at the Alcoa store to push carts through the aisles and fulfill Christmas wishes for the kids. Each child had a gift card with $150 to spend, tax-exempt.

At the cash registers, the carts came through filled with everything from blue jeans to bicycles to dinosaurs to remote-control cars, dolls, balls, video games and trucks. Many of the children also included a gift for parents and a sibling too young to come.

I was essentially finished, so I stopped at the end of a check-out aisle just to see if there was something I missed. As the little boy came through the line with his escorting officer, I noticed his buggy had nothing but clothes. There were blue jeans, underwear, socks, a jacket, sweaters and pants. Also in the mix were those three pairs of sweat pants, adult-sized. There wasn’t a toy, game, movie or piece of candy to be seen. His total was just a dollar or two shy of the $150.

The police officer with him motioned to Shari Garrett, one of the community volunteers, who had an envelope of gift cards with varying amounts on them to help with small overcharges – a few dollars here and there. Any cards that had money left on them were given to her to use for another child.

Shari Garrett, community volunteer, and Sherry Carroll, a Walmart associate who has been helping with Shop With a Cop for 22 years

“He picked out all clothes, and not all of them are for him,” the officer told her.

Shari knelt down beside the child: “Didn’t you want to get a toy for yourself?” she asked him. “No m’am,” he answered. “I don’t want to put anything back. We need it.”

“Why don’t you go back through with your officer and pick out a toy?” she said.

But the little boy was reluctant to leave his cart, so Shari told him she would keep everything right there with her, in the bags, and he could come back through the same line.

Only then did he go back with the officer to the toy aisle, returning about 20 minutes later with a big box of dinosaurs and a sleeve of cars. Shari handed the officer an extra gift card, and the little boy’s smile lit up the Christmas season and ignited my tears.

I was a bystander to this dose of Christmas reality, but I don’t intend to stay that way. There are so many needs and so many ways to help. Find one.

If hard-hearted journalists can do it, you can, too.

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