RIVERDALE — Fifty-five police cars raced down Riverdale Road in the snow early Saturday morning, all with sirens blaring and lights flashing. They converged on the Riverdale Walmart, making onlookers wonder what crime or emergency had occurred.
“We like to stack them up and make a lot of noise,” said Weber County Sheriff’s Cpl. Josh Guard. “I always forget my ear plugs.”
The law enforcement officers from Riverdale, Pleasant View, Roy and the Weber County Sheriff’s Office emerged from their cars with their pint-sized passengers, while Bonneville High School students, Walmart associates and Santa himself waited inside to greet them.
As 80 children walked into the store with their law enforcement escorts, many jumped onto carts for a joyous ride. Some children came in wearing a police officer’s hat, while their escort wore a child’s stocking cap.
“We like them to feel like a rock star for a day,” said Jessica Principe, community involvement coordinator with Riverdale Walmart.
It was the beginning of the seventh annual Shop With a Hero event.
It is a time most of the 30 Bonneville High student body and class officers look forward to all year. After raising more than $8,000 for the event in the last two weeks, all the thanks the students wanted was to see the children they helped while wrapping their gift selections.
“The two weeks of craziness is all worth it,” said Shayla Shaw, student body vice president. “This is the best part of student government, right here. There is nothing better.”
The assembly line meant each present had up to five high schoolers cutting, taping and wrapping. The teens “oohed” and “ahhed” over the gifts, often squatting down to look directly into the children’s eyes when they picked out a bow for a gift, often meant for a sibling or parent.
There were stuffed animals, dolls, toy cars, Legos, balls, board games, bikes. More touching were the socks, clothes, boots, soda and even dog food for pets, said the Bonneville High helpers.
Eleven-year-old Carson, from Roy, selected rockets and Hot Wheel tracks for his brothers, a tiara for his sister, a board game for his mother and a Star Trek item for his father. Carson’s law enforcement escort had to remind him to select something for himself.
The children came in with a cop and an empty cart, and each left with around $100 worth of items, gift-wrapped and ready for under the tree.
While waiting in line, many children had their pictures taken with Santa and their new heroes. Others were petting the K-9 police dogs on hand.
The $8,000 from Bonneville High often came a nickel and dime at a time, with a major portion coming from the Bonneville Idol contest. Raffles, dodgeball tournaments, game nights, class blitzes, a silent auction of another school’s class officers, donation buckets at local businesses and even “parking lot elves” helped collect the money that the student body and class officers said was well spent.
“It is our main event of the year,” said Emilee Tafuna’I, student body president.
Student government adviser Bob Scovel said Bonneville High collected more money this year than last. This year, some of the students donating to the cause had been Shop With a Hero recipients in the past.
“We like to make it local and support our community,” Scovel said.
“It is so emotional to meet these kids who are happy and positive despite their hardships,” Principe said. “It is the best day of the year for us.”
Shoppers are given a $100 limit, but in case the bill goes a little over, Walmart makes up the difference. This year, Walmart provided a $2,500 grant.
“We take care of the rest,” Principe said. “We don’t tell them no.”
“The kids love this so much, but we enjoy it even more,” said Jason Allred, Walmart store manager. He said store associates volunteer to man the registers during the event. “This event makes the holiday spirit a lot better.”
Many agreed that such events show children the softer side of law enforcement.
“It is a good bridge-building experience,” Allred said.
“It is neat to see officers get involved with the kids,” Principe said. “It shows they are really there to help them, despite any misperceptions.”
Many of the 55 officers involved have returned year after year to participate.
“These guys like it as much as the kids do,” said Weber County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Lemberes, who helped start the annual event seven years ago. “It really humbles you.”
This year, the Bonneville High student officers chose which young recipients were invited to the event. Many came from their own neighborhoods. Some were children who have witnessed domestic violence, some have parents battling cancer, and others recently had parents pass away.
“It is just wonderful to see the community come together to help youngsters in difficult circumstances,” said Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson. “Many of these children come from difficult circumstances at home.
“Too often, it is difficult when they see law enforcement officers. This is a loving and compassionate environment that lets them see a different side to law enforcement.
“These guys tear up talking about it.”