Operation TOYS helps police bond with the families they protect.
Christmas is on its way. Twinkling lights, holiday treats, time away from school, and presents under the tree — it’s a season around which a kid’s entire year revolves. Jostled with excitement, children everywhere are talking with friends, peers, and even the occasional stranger in public about what they will be putting on their wish lists this year.
As adults, we often wish for something expensive or ask for things that make the burden of our everyday tasks more manageable. But for children, something as simple as their first pair of roller skates can change their entire year for the better.
This was the case for 8-year-old Riley Akin, who attended Operation TOYS (Take Our Youth Shopping) for the first time last year. Although she hadn’t had the chance to practice her skills yet, Riley had her mind set on learning how to roller skate and was able to buy her very own first pair of skates during the event.
“I actually wasn’t even expecting it, but Officer Martin called and asked us if we’d like to do it, and we said definitely,” says Caitlyn Akin, Riley’s mother. “It’s been kind of a rough year, and she’s a Type One diabetic. We’ve been in and out of the hospital and she had surgery on her kidneys. I also haven’t been able to work, so there’s those problems of trying to be able to afford anything for Christmas.”
“It helps to have a face kids can relate to, and sometimes they may have one positive interaction with us all year when they get to shop.”— Officer Shelton Brown
Even with the chilly weather at the time, Riley was more than excited to try out her new skates at home. As she and Officer Brandon Warfel walked in line through the aisles, making their way toward the bike and ride-on section, Riley listed off her shopping to-dos and mentioned she would also be shopping for her little sister, Emma, 6, who was too sick to attend. Grabbing a Frozen bicycle, complete with shiny silver tassels, they made their first stop. But Riley quickly pointed her finger toward the bright colored roller skates sitting boxed on the shelf. Adorned with purple wheels, unicorns, doughnuts, and ice cream cones, they were a perfect fit.
“We were very excited and are honestly really thankful that they do this,” Caitlyn Akin says. “I got to see how excited my kids got when they learned they were able to do it.
Handing off her new purple roller skates to Officer Brandon Warfel, Riley also sought out a small pink pair of skates so she and her sister could skate together in their front driveway. And despite having never skated before, Riley showed no fear.
“I’m just going to take a shot at it,” she says.
It is also during this event when children and parents have the opportunity to get to know their local officers on a more personal level.
“I want to change the mindset that people have right now of officers, and that starts with letting people know we’re here, we’re going to talk to you, and we’re going to help you.”— Officer Shelton Brown
“Some kids grow up a little less fortunate, and we’re here for them,” Officer Shelton Brown says. “I want to change the mindset that people have right now of officers, and that starts with letting people know we’re here, we’re going to talk to you, and we’re going to help you.”
As of 2019, schools and school resource officers have been part of the process of selecting children because they have interactions with them so often.
“We also want to make sure patrol officers are involved because we go on calls dealing with students when they’re not in school,” Lt. Dave Williams adds. “It helps to have a face kids can relate to, and sometimes they may have one positive interaction with us all year when they get to shop. They can remember that, maybe two months later, if there’s a call for service at their house. Or they’ll remember Officer Brown or someone took their sister, cousin, or friend shopping and they’re more apt to go to that officer because they feel that bond from the shopping experience. That’s really why we want to make sure the kids see us in not just that enforcement mode.”
Last year alone, Operation TOYS was able to host 72 children, giving them $150.00 each to spend. Each department is able to raise funds from organizations such as the Elks Lodge, who’ve been donating to the event for more than 20 years. Because of these donations, children from low-income homes all around the district are able to participate.
Although volunteer participation has been temporarily restricted, Operation TOYS is still one of the most sought out events for area police departments and Elks Lodge members, as volunteers are happy to share how much fun can be had. Elks members have also enjoyed hosting a gift wrapping station for the children’s toys in recent years, and occasionally, one lucky child or two will get to play inside a patrol car following a police parade to the store parking lot.
“It’s a great program,” Officer Brown says. “It is amazing that we can come and talk to kids, shop with them, and show our face in a better light.”