The Walmart store in Chillicothe was a busy place Saturday morning. With Christmas lists in hand, 75 children set out to get everything on their lists.

They weren’t concerned about getting something for themselves. But, rather, they were on a mission to buy gifts to give their parents and siblings.

The shopping event was coordinated by the Chillicothe Kiwanis Club for children in the community whose families could benefit from an extra boost this Christmas. The event also gave children the opportunity to shop and experience the joy of giving gifts to loved ones.

“It just warms my heart to see how happy it makes the children,” said Alice Bartlett, a Kiwanis member who has coordinated the local shopping program since it began 17 years ago. “They are so excited about the gifts they get to buy for their family and they also learn how far they can stretch their money to get gifts for their family members. It’s just a thrill.”

The Chillicothe Kiwanis Club organizes the event, applies for grant funds and coordinates the planning. Funds this year were provided by Walmart, as well as through fund-raising efforts by offenders at Chillicothe Correctional Center. The program is carried out through the cooperation of the school district’s teachers and counselors who select children they think might benefit most from the shopping spree.

This was the biggest year ever in terms of children participating. A few more who were unable to make it on Saturday or were on a waiting list shopped later in the week.

Upon arrival on Saturday, the children were partnered with adults – members of the Chillicothe Police Department, the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, and members of the Kiwanis Club and Chillicothe High School’s Key Club members.

Police Chief Jon Maples was partnered with Marcus Davenport, 9, a third-grader at Field School. “He said he wanted to get his mom the best gift around,” Maples said. After a few minutes, Marcus found the perfect gift. Pride beamed from ear to ear as he excitedly announced his selection to those around. (Of course, this reporter is sworn to secrecy so as not to spoil the surprise).

A few aisles over was Chillicothe Police Sgt. John Valbracht, who was partnered with Ryan Gray, who is in the second grade. She was shopping for her mother, father, brother and sisters. “She was so determined to get gifts for all the members of her family and was so very happy when we were done,” Valbracht said. Valbracht started volunteering with the Kiwanis’ Shop with a Cop program when his wife, Kim, began with the program in 1998 as a sheriff’s deputy. He hasn’t missed a year since.

“I do it because it is so rewarding and fun sharing time with the kiddos,” Valbracht said. “It shows the children that law enforcement officers are people just like everyone else.” “Usually, it doesn’t take them long to shop, but it is so heartwarming to see the love in their hearts and smiles on their faces,” he added. The event has turned into a family affair for the Valbrachts, whose son, Keagan, also partners with a child for shopping.

The children selected are students in kindergarten through fifth grade and are enrolled in the Chillicothe School District and Bishop Hogan Memorial School. Additional children are added through suggestions by others in the community, such as the police department.

After being selected, their guardians are notified and asked whether they would like their child to participated. On the given day, they will take their child to Walmart to do the shopping and pick them up once they completed shopping and have had their gifts wrapped. At the conclusion of the shopping event, the children are excited and grateful to have had the opportunity.

“They are always excited,” Swartz said. “They’ll say, ‘Look what I bought for my mom, or my grandmother, or brother.’ It’s just wonderful.” Swartz expressed appreciation to those who helped shop with the children, wrapped the gifts and all who helped make the event a success. In all, there were approximately 10 Key Club members (which is the high school chapter of the Chillicothe Kiwanis Club), two Key Club sponsors from Trenton (including the state’s Key Club lieutenant governor), 16 Chillicothe Kiwanis members and their families, 18 Walmart employees, 20 city police, sheriff and highway patrol officers, and some teachers and their families.

“We couldn’t do it without everyone’s help,” Swartz said. Those who help with the morning’s event get as much out of the shopping spree as the children do. “They look forward to coming,” Swartz said. “It gives you that great Christmas spirit. The children are so excited that it makes you excited.” Without the Kiwanis’ Shop with a Cop event, there would be some families in the community who would not have any Christmas gifts, Swartz said.

The event is also an opportunity for the children to see the friendly side of law enforcement. Police Chief Maples began participating in the Kiwanis’ Shop with a Cop program in 2009 as a deputy sheriff.

“I love Shop with a Cop because it lets the kiddos hang with police officers while in uniform, but at the same time they get to see us as human beings for who we really are,” Maples said. He said an event such as this boosts the public image of law enforcement and shows children that officers are people they can trust. “This tears down barriers between us and the community, and the kiddos and parents,” Maples said. “It lets kiddos connect with us as law enforcement and help them become comfortable later on when they see us out and about and when they need us.”

Maples was partnered with three boys and girl for the shopping event. “We see them buy for families most of the time, but we have to remind them that this is for them as well,” he said.

Each child participating is also encouraged to select a gift for themselves. Once the gifts were purchased the children with their adult helpers went to the wrapping stations where between 15 and 20 individuals wrapped the gifts. By 11 a.m., the event drew to a close.

The shopping event is one of the Kiwanis’ biggest events of the year and the club is always looking for new members. Those who would like to join the Chillicothe Kiwanis Club should contact Alice Swartz at 660-646-1059, or Brian Singer, club president, at Chillicothe Ford (660-646-3263), Kanna Helton (event co-chair) at BTC Bank (660-646-1919), or any other Kiwanian. The club meets at noon each Monday at the Livingston County Multi-Purpose Center, except for the third Monday of month, when the club meets at 6:30 p.m.

By Catherine Stortz Ripley | Chillicothe News