Shop with a Cop makes Christmas better

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
On Saturday, Dec. 14, 16 children, along with a parent or guardian, met the law enforcement officers in front of Walmart. Each child was paired up with his or her own deputy from the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) or with an officer from the Okeechobee City Police Department (OCPD).

OKEECHOBEE — “Shop with a Cop” has been a yearly event in Okeechobee since 2008, and some of the officers who participate say they look forward to it all year. Each year, the schools recommend children and/or families for the program who they feel would benefit from the help. On Saturday, Dec. 14, 16 children, along with a parent or guardian, met the law enforcement officers in front of Walmart. Each child was paired up with his or her own deputy from the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) or with an officer from the Okeechobee Police Department.

Usually they have volunteers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or from the Florida Highway Patrol. A volunteer from the Shrine Club even came out to lend a hand this year. Sometimes an officer has two or three children in his care, depending on the number of volunteers who attend. This year, each child was alloted $100 to spend any way he or she chose, but they were encouraged to spend it on themselves, according to OCSO Lt. Michael Hazellief. The parents/guardians and children, along with their officers, enter the store and just follow the lead of the children.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Det. Bill Saum jokes, “Out with the old and in with the new,” as he poses with Officer Ramon Liberato. Det. Saum will be retiring from the OCPD in June.

The kids get not only to spend $100 on themselves but are the most important person in the room to their officer as long as it takes to make up their minds, and sometimes that can be just as important. City Officer Brandi Drapal said she loves coming out for Shop with a Cop. This is her second year, and she was assigned two children. She had four her first year, and she thinks two will be a little easier to keep track of.

This was the first time city Officer Ramon Liberato participated, but he said he was excited about it. He was assigned three children. Detective Bill Saum joked that he and Officer Liberato were the old and the new. Mr. Saum will be retiring in June and said this will probably be his last Shop with a Cop, unless they let him come back as a civilian.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
OCSO Deputy Cristina Torres and OCPD Sgt. Aurelio Almazon are making a list and checking it twice as they help a young man with his selections.

Cpl. Cari Arnold of the OCSO was in charge of organizing the event. She meets with each family in advance to be sure they qualify for the program. She gets the names from teachers and school resource officers. “Some children would not have a Christmas if not for this,” said Ms. Bell, and they want to be sure there is a legitimate need so the spots don’t fill up and leave someone who really needed help out of luck.

One of the moms Cpl. Arnold spoke to this year told her that her kids had been chosen last year, and so she thought they should give another child the spot. Sheriff Noel E. Stephen said he goes to a lot of things throughout the year, but Shop with a Cop sets the mood for the entire season in his mind. “It’s one of the most rewarding things during the holiday season.”

OCSO Public Information Officer Michele Bell said her favorite thing is seeing the sparkle in the eyes of the kids.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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