The laughter and chatter of excited children filled the aisles of Reynoldsburg’s Target store on Taylor Park Drive on Dec. 4 as volunteers from eight central Ohio law-enforcement and fire departments helped students from selected families shop for Christmas gifts.

The annual Heroes and Helpers project “was a huge success again this year,” said Michele Fulton, a community-resource officer for the Reynoldsburg Division of Police who has coordinated the event for the past six years. “The first responders love being involved in this program and ask to be invited back. The children were very thankful, along with the parents.”

Fulton said 20 first responders from the Reynoldsburg and New Albany police departments, Fairfield and Licking County sheriff’s offices, fire departments from Truro, Violet and Jefferson townships and the West Licking Joint Fire District based in Pataskala volunteered to shop with 16 children.

“It was a wonderful event to spend some quality time with one another,” Fulton said. “It also gives us a chance to talk and get to know one another.”

Reynoldsburg school administrators selected the students based on the apparent needs of their families during the holidays, Fulton said.

Each child was paired with a first responder and given $150 to spend on Christmas gifts for those families.

The first responders enjoyed the experience as much as the children, Reynoldsburg community-resource officer Tony Hines said.

“I had the privilege of walking around ... singing Christmas carols and passing out candy canes,” he said. “It was an awesome event.”

Hines said he has volunteered for the event since his first year with the department.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said. “It is the event that marks the real start to the holiday season for me. To be put in a position to put a smile on a child or parent’s face is a reward that neither certificates or money can take the place of.

“I spoke with a shopper in the store and as I explained why there were so many officers and firefighters in the store, she began to cry and told me that what we were doing just made her think of the holidays in a different light. People helping people is my biggest career goal. It’s what I do and who I am.”

The children were a little shy at first, Hines said.

“The kids seemed to be in awe in the beginning, but quickly warmed up to their partners,” he said. “We had enough heroes to have some walking through the store offering extra assistance and spreading holiday cheer to everyone present.

“By the time the kids made it to the wrapping station, they were all a bit more energetic than when they started. By the time they made it to the food area, the fun was at its peak. We are forever grateful to Skyline Chili for their continued support to the city of Reynoldsburg and the events we host.”

Fulton said Skyline Chili donated $500 and brought employees and a coney cart to feed everyone; Target donated $1,500 and gave away a bag filled with reindeer antler caps and coloring books; and the community donated $400 in Target gift cards, along with wrapping paper, tags and tape to wrap gifts.

She said first responders donated, too, although those amounts were unknown.

“Each child was given $150 to spend however they liked,” she said. “However, as I walked around and glanced into carts, the items selected were over the limits, so I have to assume the first responder pulled out their credit card to pick up the amount over. However, they will never admit to this.”

Any extra funds were given to families with specific needs, Fulton said.

“This was done on the side. Most families are very proud and do not want the attention; however, some are really struggling to stay above water,” she said.

Reynoldsburg police Deputy Chief Curtis Baker said he was happy to have his officers involved in Heroes and Helpers.

“This great event provides our Reynoldsburg police officers another opportunity to make a positive impact on a child’s life,” he said. “It makes me proud to be a part of the first-responder community that supports such a worthy cause.”

Fulton said both the heroes and the student “helpers” have a wonderful time each year.

“I love the smiles on everyone’s faces,” she said. “Most don’t realize how awesome this is for first responders – hence, why the students are helpers: They help the first responders know they make a difference.

“It’s an awesome, feel-good program designed for the families to get to know the first responders and the first responders to know the community, in a nonemergency event. I love being able to give hugs, money, support and smiles. This is the time of year to give thanks, be kind always and watch out for one another.”