Seven-year-old Antonio McKoy crinkled his brows together in thought as he thumbed through an assortment of belts at the local Wal-Mart, turning to glance at his mom as if to say, ‘which one you like.’
Although no words were exchanged, smiles were as mom Laytoya Rich moved in closer to her son to help him find just the right size.
“You like that one,” she asked as the youngster pulled one from the bunch and eyed it more closely.
Antonio nodded his head, tossed the belt into his shopping cart and grinned. “Can we go to the toys next?” he asked, anxiously shifting from one foot to another.
Highway Patrol Trooper S.B. Lewis smiled back at the youngster, understanding his excitement and, he said later, feeling it himself as he and his colleagues within Sampson’s Highway Patrol division took local youngsters on a Christmas shopping spree last weekend.
The now annual event is made possible thanks to support from the Patrol’s annual golf tournament which raises money to award scholarships to high school students, with leftover dollars being earmarked for the Christmas event.
“Anything over $5,000 raised from the tournament goes toward our Christmas project,” said Sgt. Bryan Smith. “We’ve been very fortunate to have funds leftover to do this for several years. It’s a special event and one we all love participating in each year.”
The Christmas shopping adventure has been something troopers have done locally since 1998, and it’s something they and their wives look forward to each year, nearly as much as the youngsters themselves.
“It’s always nice when you are in the position to help someone else out, particularly at Christmas. Seeing the smiles on these kids’ faces make all this very worthwhile,” Smith said.
Youngsters from across Sampson County were chosen as beneficiaries of the Patrol’s program this year, and last Sunday, Dec. 8, they converged on Wal-Mart to take part in the shopping spree.
The sound of laughter filled the air as the youngsters, parents in tow, grabbed carts and followed troopers down the aisles, first through the clothes and shoes and finally to the much-anticipated toy section.
“Just watching them makes my day,” said Lewis. “Their smiles are one of the greatest gifts you can receive … it makes you feel good to know you are helping someone else have a good Christmas.”
And that’s exactly what troopers were doing, parents said, as they watched their children light up with excitement over the opportunity they’d been afforded.
“This is just awesome,” said Amanda Rose, whose children, Haley, age 12, Gaberial, 7, and Shane, 10 looked through coats, trying to decide which one they preferred.
“It’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for us. I don’t know how to thank them enough.”
That sentiment was shared by grandmother Brenda Taylor who brought her grandchildren, Trenton, Anna and Ashby, to the event. “This is absolutely wonderful. It’s really the best thing I know of … the help is appreciated far more than we can really express.”
A spending amount was allotted to each child, and troopers were assigned to meander down the store’s aisles with the youngsters and their families, helping them keep up with the tally.
“They go through and pick out one toy, and when we tell them they have more money they can spend, their eyes just light up. It makes you happy and breaks your heart at the same time,” Smith said. “You watch them and know they’ve probably had to put a lot of things back on the shelves before because they couldn’t afford to get more than one … then you see their eyes light up when they tell them they can have what they just picked out and some more things, too. It’s what makes this event so special … it’s a special part of Christmas for us.”
It also, Smith said, puts a different face on what many children think of when they see a Highway Patrol officer.
“A lot of times they equate seeing us with something tragic. A lot of times when we show up at their house or at their school, there’s bad news. This puts us a different face on things. It let’s them know that we are here to help out.”
And help out they did, as once empty carts were eventually laden with clothes, shoes and some shiny new toys.
“This is an absolutely beautiful thing they do,” said Shirley Johnson.
Johnson and her family were burned out of their home a year ago and are still trying to pick up the pieces from that tragedy, which left the children with little in the way of clothes or toys.
She called the call to be part of the Highway Patrol Christmas event a real blessing.
“There’s no doubt about it, this is a holiday miracle,” Johnson said.
“It’s magic,” 7-year-old grandson Ni-Shawn chimed in. “We are so excited.”
“It’s true,” said mother Ashley Kitchen, whose youngsters were also chosen as part of the program. “I’ve heard of this type of program where people who can’t afford Christmas are helped, but I didn’t think my kids would be a part. That we are is really something special. It’s a true blessing.”