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Frank Porter Graham Elementary Students Go Shopping with Cops

‘Twas the Monday before winter break, and all through the cafeteria, 50 students were stirring, (and giggling and bouncing in their seats), waiting for an early holiday celebration to begin. This year, The Optimist Club of Chapel Hill chose Frank Porter Graham Elementary School to send students as participants in the annual December event, Shop with a Cop. Many of the students had been counting down the hours for weeks. After the children received their special Optimist Club, Rudolph tee shirts, they boarded a bus, and then stared out their windows as they realized they were escorted by nearly a dozen officers on motorcycles and in patrol cars. The students enjoyed a full motorcade from Carrboro, blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, down Old Highway 86, all the way to the Walmart in Hillsborough.

chpd and Andre at Walmart When the bus arrived in front of a very busy Walmart, dozens more officers were waiting to be transformed into personal shoppers. Eight law enforcement agencies partnered with the Optimist Club again this year: Chapel Hill Police Department, Carrboro, Hillsborough and Mebane Police Departments, UNC Public Safety and Hospital Police, Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. As students stepped of the bus, a team of officers and Frank Porter Graham staff matched shopping partners among the gathered, uniformed police. After a group photo of cops and shoppers, off they went into the crowded aisles of the store, pre-approved shopping lists in hand. Every student received a $100 gift card.

The Optimist Club of Chapel Hill began organizing the event in 2012 when they selected Carrboro Elementary as a partner. For the first few years, 20 children were chosen to go on the shopping sprees, but in 2016 the number grew to 40, and last year, 50 students in grades K-5 participated for the first time. Trish Verne, president of the club, said the goal for Shop with a Cop reaches beyond the desire to help families experience a brighter holiday season; for many children, this is a transformative, early exposure to law enforcement. “We want to start building bridges now,” Verne said. “We encourage officers to bring their cards to give to the children, so they’ll remember their names, after the event is over.” Two of the essential tenets of the Optimist's Creed are "to promote an active interest in good government and civic affairs, and to inspire respect for the law."

School social worker Kerry Sherrill worked with Verne, as well as Nate Chambers from the Chapel Hill Police Department, to organize the event. Sherrill wrote letters to parents for permission and guidance, collaborating on their children’s shopping lists. A group of volunteers from FPG offered their time and their own cars to load up the 50 bulging plastic bags, since there wasn’t enough room on the bus to transport the purchases back to school. Sherrill, assistant principal Karen Galassi-Ferrer and Yajaira Santana, school receptionist, all provided oversight and troubleshooting to create a surprisingly seamless shopping expedition.

FPG boys shopping for coats The officers engaged fully in the shopping process, advising children on purchases, consulting the lists-- and checking them twice! Most children spent part of the gift cards on parents and younger siblings. For mothers, there were colorful wall calendars and shiny thermal coffee mugs. For the students themselves, purchases ranged from silver sequined shoes and doll and pony sets, to superhero wrist watches and games like Gone Fishin,’ and the ever-popular Slime. Many children’s lists contained winter jackets, and the attending officers took great care to make sure the coats were roomy enough to last until spring. One little girl stood, wide-eyed, while her two officer buddies held up different sized coats and showed her the soft fleece lining.

Two checkout lanes were set up as “FPG Shoppers Only,” and the cashiers wore Santa hats, patiently helping the officers calculate each child’s total expenditures. Some of the officers insisted on paying for gifts that pushed the amount beyond the $100 limit, rather than ask the eager children to choose from the items piled in shopping carts. Their generosity, and that of the Optimist Club, will bring much brighter holidays to a number of households from FPG.

After the last of the students left the store, alongside officers pushing the present-laden carts, the children boarded the buses again for the lights-and-sirens ride back to Frank Porter Graham.

Learn more about Optimist Club of Chapel Hill