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When Mike Willhoite took over as chief of the Carrollton Police Department on Jan. 1, 2001, he had an idea in mind for a program he wanted to bring to the city: Shop with a Cop.
The Shop with a Cop program provides presents for children who may not otherwise receive any for Christmas. Willhoite had watched the local news and had seen what other departments in Louisville and Cincinnati did with their programs over the years and saw no reason why this could not be done in Carrollton as well. “It was something I always had the idea to do,” he said.
Willhoite said Christmas was always a big event in his house while he was growing up, and he wanted to provide area children with some of these same happy memories.
The problem was he did not have a clue as to how to put the program together. “There is no handbook on how to conduct one of these programs,” he said.
Willhoite and administrative assistant Penny Maiden discussed the idea throughout his first year as chief and held the first Carrollton Shop with a Cop event that December.
“We had no idea how to do it; we had no idea where we were going to get the money, and it has just evolved,” Willhoite said.
In its first year, the department helped provide Christmas for 33 children and spent about $6,000. The program has grown in size every year since, and on Thursday night, it will celebrate its 10th year in existence. Over the previous nine years, the department has spent more than $130,000 providing Christmas presents for almost 700 children.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Willhoite said the department set a goal at the beginning of the year to far exceed the number of children they had ever provided for in the past. This meant their fundraising goal also had to increase.
“We exceeded our fundraising goal (of $22,000), which will allow us to provide for 124 children,” Willhoite said.
The Carroll County school system provides the names of the children to the police department. Law enforcement officers, emergency service workers and volunteers will take 86 children, ages five to 13, shopping Thursday night. The remaining 38 children are the children’s younger brothers and sisters, who, at less than five years old, are too young to go shopping. The department has already shopped for these children, and their gifts will also be distributed Thursday night.
Unlike previous years when the program was held at city hall, this year’s Shop with a Cop with take place at the National Guard Armory, due to the number of children and volunteers involved. Children will be dropped off at the armory at 4:30 p.m., while the volunteers will meet at the Family Worship Center at 4:30 p.m. Both groups will be fed pizza from Hometown Pizza and Snappy Tomato Pizza, and the children will be fitted for shoes while the volunteers are briefed on the evening’s activities. The shoes are from Lowe’s Sporting Goods in London, Ky., a first-year vendor for the program that the Carroll County High School football coaches put the police department in contact with.
Despite the much larger number of children and volunteers, Willhoite said they are attempting to stay on roughly the same schedule as usual for the event. According to an estimated timeline, the children and the volunteers will arrive at the VF Outlet at 6 p.m., go to Wal-Mart at 7:15 p.m. and return to the armory by 8:45 p.m. There, Santa Claus will greet them, and the children’s parents have been instructed to pick up them and their gifts at 9 p.m.
Willhoite said they have followed the same strict criteria since the first year in regards to what each child is given. Each child will receive a jacket, a pair of shoes, several pairs of pants and shirts, a belt, socks and underwear. After those items have been purchased, he said they will have about $75 leftover that they can spend in Wal-Mart on anything within reason.
The program is run through the city of Carrollton, allowing it to be tax-exempt, Willhoite said. VF and Wal-Mart have participated since the beginning, and Glauber’s Shoes also initially took part in the program. VF offers a 20 percent discount on their clothes, while Wal-Mart provides the program with grants throughout the year. Lowe’s Sporting Goods is also offering a 35 percent discount on their shoes.
Willhoite said the goal of the program is to provide a positive interaction between children and law enforcement, other emergency service workers—firefighters, EMS workers— and jail employees. “A lot of these children have been raised in an environment that looks down on the emergency service people,” he said.
Each year the number of children increases, but they always seem to have enough volunteers. Willhoite noted that an unanticipated result of the program has been the positive experience community volunteers take with them after participating in the event.
Approximately 165-180 people are signed up to help this year. In addition to shopping with the children, volunteers assist with behind-the-scenes work, including serving pizza, helping to size and fit children with shoes and transporting and organizing the items for distribution at the end of the evening.
While he receives much of the credit publicly for the success of the Shop with a Cop program, Willhoite acknowledged all of the hard work put in by others in the department, including Maiden. “We have committed more time to the preparations than any other year,” he said. “Without her, there is no way we could do this.”
He also gave credit to Assistant Chief Steve Abbott and Officer Tim Gividen for all of their hard work throughout the year.
“We believe we are one of the most successful programs in the state,” Willhoite said, “and we’re proud of what we can do for our community.”