Sweta Benbow and JCPD officer Brittney Eberhardt get to know one another during the pizza party at Jonesborough Visitors Center before going shopping at Walmart Wednesday night. (Jennifer Sprouse/Johnson City Press)
Sisters Lily Miller, 8, and Katara Cutshall, 5, would agree that they love to shop.
So, it wasn’t surprising the girls were all smiles Wednesday night as they waited in the lobby of the Jonesborough Visitors Center for the start of the Jonesborough Department of Public Safety’s 5th annual Christmas Shop with a Cop and Firefighter program.
Lily, waving to friends and classmates as they walked in for the program, said this year she was hoping for a blonde Barbie, as well as a real life pony.
Katara also wanted a Barbie this year, but said she wanted a dark-haired Barbie instead. Katara said she was really excited to see all of her friends during the event.
The girls’ mother, Kimberly Miller, waited with them and said she was grateful for the program this year.
“The girls are really excited and they’ve been talking about it for about two weeks,” she said. “It’s our first year. It helps. I’m unemployed. I baby-sit from home and it helps out a little when you’re kind of not able to do it all, as much as you want to, on your own. I just hope that they have as much fun as they can and get to socialize with a bunch of children and just ... realize that the people in the community actually care about kids.”
April Banner, a single mom of three kids, brought her two youngest children — Jordan Williams and Sweta Benbow — to the Visitors Center Wednesday. She said this was the first year the family has participated in the program.
“They’ve been excited all day about it,” Banner said. “My income is barely minimum wage and without something like this they wouldn’t have a Christmas.”
Inside the center, police and fire personnel from the Jonesborough Department of Public Safety, Jonesborough Fire Department, Johnson City Police Department, Tennessee Highway Patrol, Unicoi County Sheriff’s Office, Carter County Sheriff’s Office, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Embreeville Volunteer Fire Department were intermingled, waiting for their assigned kids to come in the room.
Stacks of pizza, donated by Papa John’s, Pizza Plus, Luke’s Pizza, Pizza Parlor, Rocky’s Pizza and Little Caesar’s, were placed on tables, as drinks and cups were being prepared by volunteers from the local Kiwanis Club and members of Crosspoint Church in Jonesborough.
One by one, kids were paired with a cop or firefighter and made their way to the tables to eat and get to know one another, as Santa and Mrs. Claus roamed the room to chat with the kids.
Traci Fisher, a Jonesborough reserve officer, talking with her child shopper Jordan Williams, said she was excited to be participating in this year’s event.
“I helped in the fundraising and ... last year I wasn’t able to do it, so this year I’m actually getting to go out and do the shop with a cop,” Fisher said.
She said it’s good to give back to the community, as well as the children who are less fortunate than others.
“They deserve to have a good Christmas too,” Fisher said.
Grouped together toward the end of the pizza party, the children loaded into limousines provided by F&L Limos to head to Walmart, 2915 W. Market St., where they would each get to pick out presents with a $150 gift card.
Maj. Natalie Hilton said this year the program would provide Christmas presents to 76 kids, and 55 of those kids were of age to shop with emergency personnel Wednesday night.
“The other children are too young,” Hilton said. “They’re 4 and under and we just don’t allow them to go shopping with us at that age. They get gifts for Christmas and the parents will get them to take home. Every kid gets a bag of gifts. They can be from Santa Claus or they can be from the parents.”
She said this year’s program, which partners with Walmart to provide a place for the kids to shop, is the biggest event they’ve had in their five-year run.
“We make a big deal out of it so that they have a great night,” Hilton said. “Some will go buy food. Some will buy clothes. One year we had a kid buy a suit, a bike and a Bible so he could go to church on Sundays. It’s just amazing what the kids buy.”
The kids have also been known to show their generosity during the shopping event, buying presents for their own family members.
Hilton said the program, designed to benefit local underprivileged children, not only provides gifts for the kids, but lifts the burden from the parents.
“If they’re having financial struggles, we’ll take care of Christmas this year,” she said. “It gives them hope and it brings the true meaning of Christmas. It’s about giving to others. “
The parents of the kids in the program will also receive a ham or a turkey to help feed their children a holiday meal.
Just as the limousines approached Walmart’s parking lot before 7 p.m., their police escort sounded their sirens as they made the turn toward the shopping center.
Kids exited the limo one at a time, as their police or fire buddy came to take them into the store.
Grabbing a shopping cart –– some even hopping into the cart –– they set off in a dash to find their gifts.
JCPD Officer Corey Shoun, along with THP Troopers Greg Marlowe and Jonathan Street, pushed around Lily and Katara, as the sisters went down the aisle grabbing mostly the same items, including a My Little Pony toy.
Sweta, with help from JCPD Officer Brittney Eberhardt, had already snatched up a Hello Kitty robe, a movie and a sticker book.
Down the electronics aisle, Jordan found his No.1 present, XBox 360 Skylander Swap Force action figures.
Craig Ford, Jonesborough’s public safety director and the town’s operations manager, said the event is a great way to educate children that police and emergency personnel are people they should not fear, but rather people they can feel comfortable coming to should they ever need assistance.
“There’s just so many facets of this program that are so positive. We want the children to see that police officers are human just like their own parents,” Ford said. “Most of the police officers in here have children of their own. To me personally, there’s absolutely nothing that’s anymore fun than Christmas through a child’s eyes. It’s awesome.”