‘Shop with the Sheriff’ enchants wide audience

More than 100 enthralled children from the Chester County Family Academy, a K-2 charter school in West Chester, spilled into the Kennett Square Walmart on Saturday, Dec. 2, to enthusiastic applause and high fives from employees, shoppers and a posse of “Shop with the Sheriff” volunteers.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn ‘Bunny’ Welsh and her deputies welcome students to the Kennett Square Walmart during the 4th Annual Shop with the Sheriff.

The students, who arrived by bus from the Providence Church in West Chester, had already been treated to a law-enforcement escort -- complete wailing sirens and flashing lights. Now in its fourth year, the event did not prompt as many puzzled reactions as it did previously. This year, people came out of their homes and waved as the caravan, led by Rudolph on a motorcycle, snaked through the borough and neighboring townships.

“It was absolutely wonderful,” said Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh, who sits on the school’s board. “It took a school, a store, a sheriff’s office, dozens of businesses, and hundreds of volunteers. It culminated in this glorious day for everyone. We’re so grateful to everyone who helped make this such a success.”

Welsh noted that the event depended entirely on donations – from the volunteers’ many hours of preparation to the food offerings of numerous companies. In addition, organizers collected more than 100 $50 contributions that, along with a corporate match, provided each child with a $100 gift card. Students came to the event with a gift list for family members, prepared with help from their teachers.

Indeed, for much of the day, it was difficult to tell who was having more fun: the adults or the children. The sight of deputy sheriffs’ pushing shopping carts containing yellow-shirted students elicited smiles from onlookers as well as inquiries about how to get involved. Welsh said many of this year’s volunteers were people who just happened to be in the Walmart in years past and wanted to participate in the magical interactions the event generates ­– from the exchanges between the deputies and their shoppers to the assistance offered by Walmart employees and volunteers.

Deputy Frank DeJesse sports some creative headgear during Shop with the Sheriff.

Welsh said the importance of the children’s bonds with law enforcement couldn’t be overstated. During the first year, one of the deputies, who also worked part-time as a police officer, responded to a domestic violence call later that same day. “When he entered the house, he saw a child in the corner wearing a ‘Shop with the Sheriff’ shirt,” Welsh said. “The child waved as they recognized each other. It just touched him as well as all of us who heard about it. You just never know the kind of circumstances the students return home to.”

Susan Flynn, the academy’s chief executive officer, agreed, explaining that many of the school’s families face numerous challenges. “This is my Christmas,” she said of the event. “After this, I don’t need anything else; this day puts everything in perspective.”

Steve Mandell, an employee of Krapf’s bus company, also looks forward to the experience and has participated since the event debuted in 2014. “This is the one trip that I want to do every year,” he said. His colleague, Lynn Hayes, concurred: “I told people how awesome this was after I did it for the first time last year,” she said. “I love doing things like this.” Mandell said it was impossible to assess whether the children were more energized on the way to or the way from the event. “The excitement is high the whole day,” he said.

Welsh experienced some of that directly with her first shopper. “William didn’t walk; he bounced,” she said. “I could barely keep up with him.”

The event got its inspiration from Coatesville, where Welsh and her deputies participated for years in “Shop with a Cop,” an annual excursion that provides underprivileged children with money to buy holiday gifts — and a member of law-enforcement to serve as personal shoppers. Five years ago, Welsh began crafting a similar initiative for the charter school.

The 4th Annual Shop with the Sheriff began at 8:30 a.m. for the students at the church, which also doubled as a wrapping mecca, Santa stopover, and lunch venue. Two school buses dropped off the young shoppers at the Walmart at 9:30 a.m., where they assembled in a room filled with activities to await their turns combing the aisles for gifts for their loved ones. Deputies and store employees helped the youngsters cross things off their lists, which were prepared with their teachers’ help. Practical items such as pajamas, gloves and boots were among the most requested presents.

Some items on the wish list prompted some droll conversations. For example, Deputy Frank DeJesse jokingly asked Deputy Brian Bolt if he knew where to find red purses. “Yes, I actually do,” Bolt responded with a laugh, pointing his colleague in the right direction.

By 1 a.m., the students returned to the church for lunch, photos with Santa, and gift presentations to Welsh and Lt. Harry McKinney, the lead organizer of the event. Welsh received a holiday wall plaque that said: “The bell still rings for all who truly believe.” McKinney got a placard that encapsulated the feeling of the day with its single word: “Joy.” Then Flynn explained that the children would use their voices to give a gift to everyone within earshot by singing a selection of carols.

“It’s absolutely a wonderful thing to see,” said Jeanne Phillips of West Chester, who was in the Walmart when the swarm of children and deputies descended. “This is just terrific outreach.”


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