‘Shop with Sheriff’ elicits mix of smiles, tears

With flashing lights and wailing sirens, the law-enforcement caravan followed a lead motorcycle driven by a deputy sheriff decked out as a reindeer; it also included Mrs. Claus in a prison van as it pulled up to the Walmart in East Marlborough Township on Saturday morning, Dec. 3.

Bubbling with excitement, students and teachers arrive at the East Marlborough Walmart for 'Shop with the Sheriff.'

Bubbling with excitement, students and teachers arrive at the East Marlborough Walmart for 'Shop with the Sheriff.'

Such unconventional touches added a twist to the “Third Annual Shop with the Sheriff, ” an anticipated event that prompted one of its organizers to confess that she had just consumed her sixth cup of coffee – and it was only 9 a.m.

But Lee DiMattia, a bookkeeper for the Chester County Sheriff’s Office, knew that caffeine would offer an effective way to keep up with 108 children from the Chester County Family Academy, a K-2 charter school in West Chester. And as the gleeful students spilled out of two Krapf’s buses, the staff at the Walmart greeted them with applause and high fives.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh (left) takes an annual 'elfie selfie' with

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh (left) takes an annual 'elfie selfie' with Katie Martin from the West Chester Rotary Club.

Some employees had rearranged their schedules to be involved while others experienced the children’s wide-eyed excitement for the first time. Walmart store manager Michele Serbin represented a mix of the two.

She explained that although she had transferred to East Marlborough from the Parkesburg store only a month ago, she had participated for several years in “Shop with a Cop,” an initiative by the Coatesville Police Department that spawned “Shop with the Sheriff,” an outing that provides underprivileged children with money to buy holiday gifts.

Michele Serbin, manager of the East Marlborough Walmart, poses with Kelly Quillen, the stores customer relations manager.

Michele Serbin, manager of the East Marlborough Walmart, poses with Kelly Quillen, the store's customer relations manager.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh said that she and her deputies enjoyed participating in “Shop with a Cop” so much that when she joined the board of the Chester County Family Academy, she wanted to replicate the event.

“Everyone really looks forward to this day,” said Serbin.

Lynne Hayes, one of the bus drivers, was new to the event, but she had a veteran, Steve Mandell, to enlighten her. Mandell, who participated in the inaugural event, has requested the assignment ever since.

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Chris DiMattia (top right), the sister of event co-organizer Lee DiMattia, watches as the children eagerly pet 'Miss Pebbles.'

“The first thing he said to me was that this is going to be an awesome experience,” said Hayes.

Lisa McGinnity of Birmingham Township had just exited the Walmart with her two children when the buses arrived. Unlike some shoppers who wondered whether it was safe to enter the store, McGinnity was familiar with the program because a friend teaches at the school. However, she had never seen it firsthand.

Capt. Jason Syudan helps a shopper with his list.

Capt. Jason Suydam helps a shopper with his list.

“Let’s go back in and watch,” she said to her children as she turned her shopping cart around. “It’s so nice to see the kids’ smiles.”

Kennett Square Borough Councilman Doug Doerfler also happened to be running errands at the right time. Doerfler, who knew about “Shop with the Sheriff,” enjoyed seeing it in action.

“It’s wonderful to see such excitement,” Doerfler said as shopping carts crisscrossed the store, each with a yellow-shirted youngster and either a blue-uniformed deputy or a green elf. “This is a great example of the ways that county law enforcement builds trust in the community.”

Tommy Potts (right), one of the event's star volunteers, poses with Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh.

Tommy Potts (right), one of the event's star volunteers, poses with Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh.

Other shoppers were equally entranced. “This just gave my day a happy start,” said Bobbie O’Sullivan of Pennsbury Township. “It’s heartwarming to see this.”

Susan Flynn, the academy’s chief executive officer, couldn’t agree more. “It just gets better and better each year,” she said. “I just can’t say enough about how grateful we are for the community involvement and outreach.”

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh (left) holds up an item for a shopper's inspection as Sue Flynn, the school's executive director, looks on.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh (left) holds up an item for a shopper's inspection as Sue Flynn, the school's chief executive officer, looks on.

The Chester County Family Academy was founded in 1997 to carry out the vision of local philanthropists Dick and Sheila Sanford “to make a difference in the lives of children.” Flynn said most of the families, for whom English is a second language, struggle financially. But what they also have in common is a belief in the importance of education, Flynn said.

She said the school begins preparations in September. Students worked with their teachers to compile a wish list of gift ideas for family members, and parents were informed about the event so they could assist, Flynn said. (The students’ each get a $100 budget, half of which comes from donations and half of which is matched by Walmart.)

Boys enjoy trying on Chester County Lt. Adam Sibley's hat.

Boys enjoy taking turns wearing Chester County Lt. Adam Sibley's hat.

Flynn said the event, which couldn’t happen without the support of the Sheriff’s Office, volunteers, and dozens of sponsors, affords the children an opportunity to give back to their families. “They are able to buy something for someone else, which helps them feel special,” said Flynn.

Lauren Blake (right), a member of the school's board, learns the secret of Deputy Sheriff Gayle Litwiniec-Sauers' safe driving: Use a bicycle horn to avoid collisions.

Lauren Blake (right), a member of the school's board, learns the secret of Deputy Sheriff Gayle Litwiniec-Sauers' safe driving: Use a bicycle horn to avoid collisions.

One of the first-time sponsors, the 1830 Family Foundation, would likely continue its involvement, said Laurie Marshall, one of its principals, as she watched the holiday magic around her. “This is absolutely great,” she said.

Many of the children’s purchases, ranging from diabetic socks to Ensure to a bed pillow, tugged at the heartstrings of the adults who were helping or watching them.

Chester County Cpl. Chris Rongaus (right) doesn't have to jump through any hoops with a shopper who knows exactly what he wants and where to find it.

Chester County Cpl. Chris Rongaus (right) doesn't have to jump through hoops with a shopper who knows what he wants.

“All he has in the cart are diapers,” said Welsh as she encouraged one of her young shoppers to add some other items. She said she asked another boy who had money left in his budget what his family could use, and he said: “a toaster.”

As such interactions unfolded throughout the store, many bystanders wiped away tears.

Peg Martin of Avondale said she used to teach inner-city children and “Shop with the Sheriff” reminded her of a special gift that she received one year. “A girl brought me a set of fake fingernails that had one nail missing so I knew it was used,” she said, adding that she treasured that gesture. “I think what’s happening here is wonderful; it made my day.”

Deputy Sheriff Teresa Miller navigates the pajama department with one of her shoppers.

Deputy Sheriff Teresa Miller navigates the pajama department with one of her shoppers.

Many employees in the Sheriff’s Office return each year. “I love it when I see the smiles on the kids’ faces,” said Becky Yepremian, who kept a list of the start and finish times for each shopping pair.

Butch Dutter, who recently joined the Sheriff’s Office following his retirement as a Chester County Detective, got a quick, positive initiation. “I couldn’t believe how many people came up to me to say thanks for what we were doing,” he said.

Joyce and Art Sybell of Kennett Township were so moved by what they saw that they sought out Welsh. “Watching these kids be so happy is the greatest thing,” Joyce Sybell told the sheriff, offering to contribute time or money in the future.

Chester County Deputy Sheriff Kevin Griffin ends up with a full shopping cart.

Chester County Deputy Sheriff Kevin Griffin ends up with a full shopping cart.

Tricia Harootunian, also known as Mrs. Claus, was participating for the first time; however, she had previously interacted with the Sheriff’s Office through her creation of an award-winning program to keep children safe from predators. In addition to sporting her own handmade outfit, she provided the attire for Deputy Sheriff Robert Kearney.

Her motivation for making the costumes was simple. “I don’t like an ugly Santa,” she explained.

Once the gifts were selected, the shopping teams headed to designated cash registers, where volunteers wrote the recipients’ names on the gifts, loaded them into bags with the students’ names, and transported them to the gift-wrapping station set up at Providence Church, where the students returned for lunch and more activities, including a visit with Santa and his wife.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh (left) and Lt. Harry McKinney show off their gifts from the children who participated in 'Shop with the Sheriff.'

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh (left) and Lt. Harry McKinney show off their gifts from the children during 'Shop with the Sheriff.'

DiMattia said about half of the volunteers, including dozens of deputy sheriffs, had duties at the Walmart, while the other half, a mix of representatives from the Rotary, Scouts, and church groups, manned the wrapping and activity stations at the church.

Deputy Sheriff Lt. Harry McKinney, a lead organizer, expressed gratitude to a host of sponsors, including Krapf Bus Companies, Wawa, Walmart, Otto’s BMW, Herr’s, Bryn Mawr Trust, Manhattan Bagel, American Pie, Providence Church, and Arthur Hall Insurance.

A young shopper poses with Margery Gonzales (from left), one of Santa's elves. Mrs. Claus, and the big man himself.

A young shopper poses with Marjorie Gonzalez (from left), one of Santa's elves, Mrs. Claus, and the big man himself.

Back at the church, the students presented some gifts, too, including an original song for the occasion, as well as gifts for Welsh and McKinney: a large, framed “Peace on Earth” sign, a small golden bunny, and a colorful addition to McKinney’s eyewear collection.

Lauren Blake, who just joined the board of the school, said participating in the event represented an honor and a privilege – when she wasn’t fighting back tears.

She said one of the most poignant exchanges occurred when a young boy asked if he could whisper in her ear. She bent down as he said: “Thank you for making my day, my year, and my life.”

“It just makes your Christmas,” Blake added.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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