The holidays look brighter for nine local families, thanks to Gahanna's Shop with a Cop program.
Marcie Aiello, Gahanna Lincoln High School's business department chairwoman, said the high school's Lions Locker, an anonymous pantry located at the high school, hosted the third annual event with most families shopping with Gahanna Division of Police personnel Dec. 6. Another family, which couldn't attend last week, went shopping Dec. 11.
"(Colleagues) Ryan Callihan, Tracy Dyckman and I decided to launch Shop with a Cop three years ago, because it is a great event to bring our schools, police officers and community together," Aiello said.
Meijer has provided the shopping location, employee assistance and some of the donated gift cards for the event, she said.
"Our schools, staff, community members, local businesses, members of Gahanna police and the city of Gahanna have all provided additional donations to cover the remaining gift cards needed for the event," Aiello said. "Shop with a Cop is completely donation-based and provides several deserving families with an evening to bond with our wonderful police officers and the volunteers who assist in shopping with them.
"Giving back, creating these community connections and giving families a night where they can just enjoy is priceless," she said.
Aiello said many of the selected families have been dealing with stressful issues throughout the year, such as the loss of a job, financial issues and health and medical issues.
She said Shop with a Cop shows them that the Gahanna community cares.
Each elementary school and the preschool select one family to shop, according to Aiello.
She emails the principals at each building and as a staff, a selection is made.
Samantha Miller said her 10-year-old son, Jefferey Wilder, was chosen for Shop with a Cop.
He's a fifth-grader at Royal Manor Elementary School.
"It has been rough for our family in the last years," she said. "We want to show him good things happen in bad times, and cops are just normal people."
Miller said it was a blessing that he was chosen.
"It was a great financial relief," she said. "He does have four other siblings. It's a great program."
Miller said Jefferey is a gamer and that hobby is expensive.
"He went straight to the electronics," she said of her son's shopping experience. "He was a happy camper. When I first told him, he said, 'Don't lie to me. You said not to lie.' I told him, 'You really got picked, man.' He said he was really overwhelmed. I haven't had the means to do something like that. It's nice to see my son experience something like that."
Michelle Holt, a grandparent of Kayden Anderson of Blacklick Elementary School, said Kayden was completely in awe of Det. Ryan Utt, the police officer who accompanied him.
She said they just casually strolled through the store while Kayden picked out things he really was hoping for -- but didn't put on his Christmas list -- because he knows money is tight at times, and he would rather buy gifts for others than get them himself.
"He is that type of kid," Holt said. "The officer talked directly to him in such an easy manner about Kayden's hobbies and interests, along with enthusiastically answering Kayden's questions about himself, his life and the job of protecting our community."
Holt said Kayden has said for years that he wants to be a police officer when he grows up.
"I give complete credit to the partnership the school system and police force have with each other," she said.
Holt said she and her husband, Mark Holt, are raising their grandson in what she calls "the best town in all of Ohio."
"We truly have the 'perfect storm' here," she said. "The most talented and compassionate teachers I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with, that care so genuinely about their kids. ... Mix that with the best police force I know, with officers that are truly invested in building the community by working hard every day to keep us all safe, while also educating all ages from the youngest child to the oldest adult on what we can do as members of this great town, but also where we can turn to for help if needed.
"But what brings this all together is the true partnership the schools and police force have built together and seem to perfect a little more every year," Holt said.
Gahanna police Chief Jeff Spence said Shop with a Cop is a fantastic opportunity for officers, teachers and staff to bring holiday cheer to children in need.
"It also is an opportunity for teachers, staff, families and children to see another side of law enforcement -- that our department is made up of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, as well as sons and daughters -- and that we each hold the keys to the magic and memories that this holiday season brings to us all," he said.
Aiello said this year's event was fantastic.
"We had several Gahanna police officers return to shop for the third consecutive year, because they so look forward to this event," she said. "We had nine families participate this year, representing all seven of our GJPS elementary schools and our preschool. The children were so excited and so selfless.
"Many immediately wanted to pick out items for their siblings and parents, rather than for themselves," she said.
She said anyone can donate to Lions Locker, providing food, toiletries, school supplies and other needed items to Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools pre-kindergarten to grade 12 students and their families year-round. Donors can send a check to Gahanna Lincoln High School, 140 S. Hamilton Road, Gahanna, OH 43230 or go online at https://www.gofundme .com/glhs-lions-locker.
If anyone would like to donate to Shop with a Cop in particular, mark the donation "Shop with a Cop" and it will be earmarked for that event.