Participating in a program that helps Bartow County children who won't have much under the Christmas tree turns into a bigger blessing for the volunteers who help than for the kids they're helping.
Public safety and military personnel from several local agencies will help less-fortunate Bartow County and Cartersville City elementary school students with some Christmas shopping during the 11th annual Shop with a Hero Saturday, Dec. 15, and they'll be having as much fun as the kids.
"People join public safety because they care about their community," said Bartow County Sheriff's Office investigator Hollie McKamey, who organizes the event with investigator Megan Kincer every year. "They want to help the community in any way they can, whether it be on duty or off duty. Our children are the future of our society, and showing them that they matter teaches them compassion for others in the future. Seeing the bright smiles and excitement on the children's faces will warm anyone's heart, and this is what brings the public safety personnel back year after year."
BCSO Maj. Doug Duncan said he and his wife, Ramona, have participated in Shop with a Hero every year.
"I do it because we, as public servants, have a heart to assist," he said. "Sometimes the only interaction kids will have with public safety is when something bad has happened. I think it's great for the kids to know we are and will always be there for them."
Investigator Josh Harrell with BCSO, who has taken part in seven shopping events, agrees with Duncan.
"I do this every year because it is a small investment of my time that could potentially have a massive impact on police-community relations and an even greater impact on the life of a child in Bartow County," he said, noting he had to take vacation days for some of them "to ensure I would be able to participate."
The Christmas adventure for the 300 kids, who are chosen by the local schools, will begin at 9 a.m. at the Clarence Brown Conference Center on Highway 20 in Cartersville.
"The children and their families will enjoy a warm breakfast and visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus," McKamey said. "A raffle will be conducted that includes two bicycles and various gift certificates donated from businesses in the community."
After breakfast, the families will load up on school buses for a full police/fire/EMS escort from the conference center to Walmart in Cartersville, where they will be allowed to spend $150 each — $100 must be used for clothing, and $50 can be spent any way they want.
"The really wonderful thing about these kids is that of the ones that we have gotten to shop with, they will want to buy something for their parent or their sibling," Duncan said, noting he and his wife will take on a family with multiple kids for the shopping spree.
McKamey said the students are excited about more than just getting to shop.
"They are truly grateful for not only getting to purchase items they otherwise may not receive but also for the one-on-one attention they receive from the public safety officer they are paired with," she said. "We hear from the children how exciting it is to see all of the lights and to hear the sirens during the escort to Walmart."
Giving children in Bartow County the Christmas they might not have otherwise is the reward for most of the public servants who participate.
"My favorite about Shop with a Hero is seeing the excitement the kids experience, from the moment they get to the conference center for breakfast to the public safety-guided bus ride to Walmart to the shopping with public safety officers," Duncan said, adding the event is "organized chaos, and it works." "I have seen some of the same children come back over the years. It touches your heart to see these kids. They come hug you and tell you they remember you from last year."
"My favorite part of the event is seeing all of the 'heroes' come together from all over and seeing the light in the children's eyes as they are able to spend time with all of the public safety involved," Harrell said. "I encourage anyone not involved with this event to get involved just once to see the impact it has on the children, and I guarantee it won't be the last year they get involved."
Unlike this time last year, when the program was still $30,000 short of what it needed, this year's $50,000 goal was met Tuesday, McKamey said.
"Randy Thompson's [fundraising] luncheon was [Tuesday], and the donations that were made during it brought us to our goal," she said.
Other fundraisers also were conducted throughout the year to bankroll the program, including a barbecue where ribs and pork butts were sold, a raffle for a handmade Blue Line afghan, a Project SEARCH T-shirt sale by Cartersville Medical Center and a round-robin tournament hosted by the Cartersville Police Department.
McKamey said she won't know for sure what local agencies will be represented at the event until that day, but she's expecting volunteers from BCSO; Cartersville, Emerson and Adairsville police departments; Bartow County and Cartersville fire departments; Metro Ambulance Service; county and city school personnel; and CMC personnel.
"We would love to have any first responder or military personnel to help us out with this event," she said.
Duncan said having public servants and their families as well as other people volunteer to make Shop with a Hero a success each year is "such a tribute to the people of Bartow County."
Though the goal has been met, donations are still being accepted. Contributions can be taken or mailed to the Bartow County Sheriff's Office, 104 Zena Drive, Cartersville, GA 30121. If mailing a check, include "Attn: Bartow County Shop with a Hero" with the address on the envelope.
"This program is so special to each and every public safety officer and child that participates," McKamey said. "However, this program cannot operate without the generous donations made from the Bartow County community. We just want to thank every person that has ever donated or volunteered to make this program happen. We truly appreciate you."