Cops and Kids: building community in the Virginia Beach toy aisle

Virginia Beach police officer Matt Taylor helps 7-year-old Pierre Penn choose toys during the Cops & Kids event Saturday. (Mariah Pohl)
Virginia Beach police officer Matt Taylor helps 7-year-old Pierre Penn choose his Christmas presents during the Cops and Kids event Saturday. (Mariah Pohl)

This year, Christmas came a little early for a group of Virginia Beach children thanks to the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).

For more than a decade, FOP has hosted Cops and Kids, an event which pairs underprivileged Virginia Beach children with their local police force to shop for Christmas presents. Typically, each child is provided $100 in spending money, and all purchases are covered using funds raised by FOP throughout the year.

Santa made an appearance at the annual Cops and Kids event, hosted this year at Target in the Pembroke Mall. (Mariah Pohl)
Santa made an appearance at the annual Cops and Kids event, hosted this year at Target in the Pembroke Mall. (Mariah Pohl)

Formerly called Shop with a Cop, the Cops and Kids event brings community members and police officers together in a positive environment, said Pat McAndrews, FOP vice president.

“In light of what is going on, children need to know that when they are in danger, they can look up to police officers,” he said. “The kids are so appreciative and often will buy presents for parents or grandparents before themselves. It’s unbelievable.”

This year, the police department invited more than 30 kids to take part in the festivities at Target in Pembroke Mall. Many of the selected kids had been displaced from their homes by Hurricane Matthew, according to FOP president Jason Karangelen.

Virginia Beach police officer Matt Taylor said this year marks the third time he has participated in Cops and Kids.

“This event helps build relationships between the kids and officers by showing the police aren’t bad guys,” he said. “Sometimes parents tell their kids not to trust the police, which can be frustrating. So this is a way for us to intervene and put a positive image in their minds.”

The uniformed persona of law enforcement can be hard to overcome, said Virginia Beach police officer Jasper Hamlin, who was participating in the event for her first time.

“Unfortunately, when we interact with the community, they usually see us on their worst day,” she said. “Events like these help show that the police are regular people too.”

More than 30 Virginia Beach kids took part in this year's Cops and Kids event. (Mariah Pohl)
More than 30 Virginia Beach kids took part in this year’s Cops and Kids event. (Mariah Pohl)

This year, about two dozen members of the Virginia Beach police force and the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office turned out for Cops and Kids, which was kicked off at 8 a.m. with coffee, donuts and a visit by Santa in a red fire truck.

Santa handed out candy canes and posed for photos before leading the group to the toy section to search for gifts.

“This is such a nice event and it means a lot to my family,” said Ebony Penn, a mother of two boys. “I think it’s great that my kids get to spend time with police officers.”

Penn’s kids shopped with officers Hamlin and Taylor, who helped them balance their budgets, check out at the register and wrap up their gifts for Christmas morning.

“We try to make Cops and Kids as special as we can for these children,” said Joseph DellaVecchio of the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office. “It means so much to us to see their faces and make these connections with them. I don’t think I’ve seen a single officer fail to establish a connection with a kid during these events.”

To learn more about the Fraternal Order of Police visit www.fop.net.

Pohl may be reached at mariah@localvoicemedia.com 

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