Just after 6 a.m. on Dec. 17, a line of police cars with lights and sirens blaring will travel from the Spanish Fork interchange of I-15, up Highway 6 to near the mouth of the Spanish Fork Canyon.
But the officers won’t be waking up neighborhoods because of a high-speed chase or a car accident. The incident will be part of the Shop with a Cop holiday celebration, giving 150 children from around the county much-needed Christmas cheer.
“This event is for the kids,” says Lt. Tom Hodgson, patrol division commander for the Utah County Sheriff’s Office in Spanish Fork. “Not only do we want to help them get a few gifts, but we also want to give them a positive experience with a police officer. Some of them have had negative experiences with police involving family members, but this event shows them that we are human, that we can be fun and that we love our community.”
The local Shop with a Cop program started in 1990 after Tom and recently retired Salem police officer Blair Kerby saw news reports of similar programs around the country. The pair began discussing the program and asked, “Why not us?”
“The Christmas season is about giving. On a personal level, this gives me and my family the chance to help people who really need it. I have reaped far more for doing this than any of the children have.” —Lt. Tom Hodgson, Utah County Sheriff’s Office in Spanish Fork
They developed an initial partnership with Kmart stores in the area and raised enough to give 40 children a $75 shopping spree at the American Fork Kmart.
“We didn’t have a lot of participants or a lot of money back then,” Tom says. “Now, 25 years later, we have a lot of donors who make the program possible.”
Participating children are identified by police officers and through a partnership with Kids Cause of Utah County — a non-profit organization in public schools that works to ensure student success by assisting them with physical, emotional and social needs.
“That partnership is great,” Tom says. “Kids Cause works closely with principals and teachers in identifying children who would benefit from the program.”
Typically, participants are between the ages of 5 and 9 and often come from lower income areas of the county. They arrive at the store (in the recent past, it’s been Kmart in Spanish Fork, although it may move to the new Walmart location in Spanish Fork) at 6 a.m. Each child is paired with a police officer, and then takes the ride up Highway 6 toward Spanish Fork Canyon.
But, before reaching the canyon, officers turn toward Canyon View Park and give the children a special tour of the city’s Festival of Lights.
After the light show, children and officers share breakfast at Diamond Fork Junior High. The meal is prepared, served and cleaned up by the extended family of Chad and Andie Gardiner.
“It’s always a huge hit,” Tom says. “That breakfast is where you see the children really start to interact with officers.”
Then, the children return to the store where the holiday magic begins. A pre-determined amount of money is set and the children pick out their presents. In 2015, support from the community allowed each of the 153 children to spend $135.
“Many of the children want to use a lot, if not all, of their money on getting presents for others — moms, dads, grandparents, siblings — and it’s really touching,” Tom says.
The children often don’t look at price tags, so participating officers make up any “overages” out of their own pockets. Donations from the local Knights of Columbus ensures each child also leaves with a new coat and a pair of gloves.
The day is complete with a small army of volunteers wrapping each gift and sending the children on their way.
“The Christmas season is about giving,” Tom says. “On a personal level, this gives me and my family the chance to help people who really need it. I have reaped far more for doing this than any of the children have.”
Lt. Tom Hodgson, like other officers who participate in the Shop with a Cop program, has heard from participating children years after shopping sprees.
In one case, Tom had been paired with a young girl who’d been diagnosed with what was thought to be terminal cancer.
“Years later, I was lecturing at a conference in St. George and was approached by this young woman who asked if I remembered her from the program,” he says. “I did. She was 21 years old, healthy and working as a nurse. It was a great reunion.”
On another occasion, Tom’s lunch got paid for anonymously. After some investigation (he’s a police officer, after all) he discovered it was a young man who had participated in the program and wanted to pay it forward.
How to get involved
The Shop with a Cop program is a registered non-profit in Utah. Those interested in donating can contact any police department or officer for information on how to donate or to get involved.